Lessons from the Goldfinch

A long and winding, beautifully written book with numerous disturbing story lines.

The GoldfinchMy friend Barbara, an avid reader, recommended The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt to her Facebook friends, including me. I’d been looking for something modern and mainstream to read since binging and burning out (and subsequently dropping) the Arthur C. Clark (and ghostwriter) Rama series books. (Clarke’s original Rendezvous with Rama is a short masterpiece of science fiction; the long, drawn out books in the series that came afterward were some ghostwriter’s attempt to fill too many pages with unnecessary personal drama reminiscent of today’s reality TV shows that, quite frankly, annoyed and bored me. I was in the middle of the third book when I decided I’d had enough.)

On a whim, I looked it up on my library’s website, discovered they had an ebook version, and put it on hold. When it became available two weeks later, I checked it out and began reading on my iPad.

I soon realized two things about the book:

First, it was beautifully written. The author used words to expertly paint pictures of New York, Las Vegas, and other backdrops for the story that put me right in those places. Keep in mind that I’ve spent a lot of time in both places and I can assure you that she nailed every aspect of her descriptions. From grabbing a taxi in New York to wandering the streets of ghost housing developments in the desert outskirts of Vegas, she put the reader there expertly. She also managed to convey the moods of not only her first person narrator but the places and situations he was in. I realized almost immediately that I’d been stuck in a rut reading garbage fiction. This book was like a breath of fresh air for my brain.

Here’s a paragraph from near the beginning of the book to give you an idea of what I mean:

If the day had gone as planned, it would have faded into the sky unmarked, swallowed without a trace along with the rest of my eighth-grade year. What would I remember of it now? Little or nothing. But of course the texture of that morning is clearer than the present, down to the drenched, wet feel of the air. It had rained in the night, a terrible storm, shops were flooded and a couple of subway stations closed; and the two of us were standing on the squelching carpet outside our apartment building while her favorite doorman, Goldie, who adored her, walked backwards down Fifty-Seventh with his arm up, whistling for a taxi. Cars whooshed by in sheets of dirty spray; rain-swollen clouds tumbled high above the skyscrapers, blowing and shifting to patches of clear blue sky, and down below, on the street, beneath the exhaust fumes, the wind felt damp and soft like spring.

Holy cow. Are you there with me? I can see the yellow of the cabs speeding by, all with their “hired” lights on, while the doorman, in his cap and long coat, steps out onto the avenue, arm held high with his whistle blowing wildly in his mouth, trying hard to get a taxi while mother and son wait under the arched awning in front of the building. I can hear the car horns and other doorman whistles, see wisps of steam rising from the manhole covers, smell the pungent odor of flooded storm drains. All the while, pedestrians rush by under umbrellas, collars turned up against the driving rain as they splash through small puddles on the sidewalk in hopelessly wet shoes.

So much of the book is like this for me.

Second, it was extremely long. I didn’t realize how long it was in real pages until today when I looked it up on Amazon just to get that piece of information: 755 pages. Wow! And my library loan gave me just two weeks to get through it!

The story follows the narrator through the tragic loss of his mother and the morally questionable acquisition of a 17th century Dutch masterpiece, The Goldfinch. Throughout the story, Theo describes the events of his life, from being shuffled from one home to another, left on his own to discover drugs with a friend to his troubled adult life. I don’t want say more because I don’t want to spoil any of the plot lines for readers. Amazon’s description, which was obviously written by some publishing house marketer who didn’t bother to read the book, is a bit misleading.

Simply stated: the story is dark and although I never actually disliked the first person narrator, I kept thinking over and over how stupid he was being to screw up his life the way he was. As one reviewer who found the book too sad to finish put it, “Just when I think it will get better something else bad happens.” A note on Amazon says that 172 reviewers made a similar statement. I would have, too.

But it was the beauty of the writing and my hope for a happy ending that pulled me through the book. Reading in bed before dawn or curled up on the sofa on a foggy afternoon, I paged through it, marveling at the quality of the prose while lamenting the main character’s often self-inflicted misfortunes. Although friendship was a major theme throughout the book, Theo’s friend was not a good influence and I had a lot of trouble getting past that until the third part of the book.

I was rewarded at the end with two passages that I bookmarked because they had special meaning to me. Both occur near the end of the book, in the narrator’s lengthy summation of his story and what he learned from what he’d been through.

Theo talks a bit about the goldfinch in the painting, a small bird fastened to its perch with a length of chain. He talks about the bird not being afraid of its surroundings despite its tiny size. About it not being timid and not being hopeless and refusing to pull back from the world. And then he says:

And, increasingly, I find myself fixing on that refusal to pull back. Because I don’t care what anyone says or how often or winningly they say it: no one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here’s the truth: life is a catastrophe. The basic fact of existence — of walking around trying to feed ourselves and find friends and whatever else we do — is catastrophe. Forget all this ridiculous ‘Our Town’ nonsense everyone talks: the miracle of the newborn babe, the joy of one simple blossom, Life You Are Too Wonderful To Grasp, &c. For me — and I’ll keep repeating it doggedly till I die, till I fall over on my ungrateful nihilistic face and am too weak to say it: better never born, than born into this cesspool. Sinkhole of hospital beds, coffins, and broken hearts. No release, no appeal, no “do-overs” to employ a favored phrase of Xandra’s, no way forward but age and loss, and no way out but death. [...]

And — maybe it’s ridiculous to go on in this vein, although it doesn’t matter since no one’s ever going to see this — but does it make any sense at all to know that it ends badly for all of us, even the happiest of us, and that we all lose everything that matters in the end — and yet to know as well, despite all this, as cruelly as the game is stacked, that it’s possible to play it with a kind of joy?

Not exactly the kind of quote that makes you feel good about life. But in my own life, it has a lot of meaning.

Although I can’t complain about most of my life — I’ve worked hard and played hard and enjoyed life within my limited means — the events of the past two years or so have taken a serious toll on me. They’ve made me see life from Theo’s point of view. Life’s a real struggle sometimes, especially when difficult, unexpected situations are thrown in your path. A marriage gone sour for reasons you can’t comprehend. A formerly loving spouse lying, cheating, and committing a never-ending series of hurtful acts against you. Stranger-than-fiction situations triggering PTSD-driven responses that cause a chain reaction of apparently unsurmountable problems.

This is the catastrophe Theo is talking about, complete with broken hearts and no appeals or do-overs. Unlike Theo, however, I didn’t bring the catastrophe on myself — it was thrust upon me by others. I suppose I should consider myself fortunate that I haven’t had to deal with it until recently.

I struggle now to move forward with as much of the joy as I can muster. My friends and family tell me I’m doing an amazing job, that I’m a strong woman and will get through my temporary setbacks. I know they’re right. I have plenty of good days among the bad. But I also know the feeling of utter despair that Theo shares throughout the book.

The other passage I bookmarked reminded me a bit about what’s driven me my entire life.

In the book, Theo does self-destructive things: drugs, theft, fraudulent transactions. He knows these things are wrong, but he does them, sometimes justifying them in his own mind to make them more acceptable. Sometimes he’s just too weak or lacks the willpower to stop. In this lengthly passage, he questions the “norms” and what people are expected to do with their lives.

I look at the blanked-out faces of the other passengers — – hoisting their briefcases, their backpacks, shuffling to disembark — and I think of what Hobie said: beauty alters the grain of reality. And I keep thinking too of the more conventional wisdom: namely, that the pursuit of pure beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow, the beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful.

Only what is that thing? Why am I made the way I am? Why do I care about all the wrong things, and nothing at all the right ones? Or, no to take it another way: how can I see so clearly that everything I love or care about is illusion, and yet– for me, anyway — all that’s worth living for lies in that charm?

A great sorrow, and one that I’m only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.

Because — isn’t it drilled into us constantly, from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture — ? From William Blake to Lady Gaga, from Rousseau to Rumi to Tosca to Mr. Rogers, it’s a curiously uniform message, accepted from high to low: when in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: “Be yourself.” “Follow your heart.”

Only here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted — ? What if the heart, for all its unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self immolation, disaster? Is Kitsey right? If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical checkups, stable relationships and steady career advancement, the New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of being somehow a better person? Or — like Boris — is it better to throw yourself headfirst and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?

It’s not about outward appearances but inward significance. A grandeur in the world but not of the world, a grandeur that the world doesn’t understand. That first glimpse of pure otherness, in whose presence you blew out and out and out.

A self one does not want. A heart one cannot help.

I was raised to believe that people follow a predestined path: grow up, go to school, get a job, get married, buy a house, have kids, retire, have grandkids, die. Somewhere along the line, “get a job” turned into “have a career” and that career was supposed to be in an office working 9 to 5 for a paycheck.

But something about me made me question that path when I was in the “go to school” phase. You see, rather than getting that office job with good career opportunities, I realized I wanted to be a writer. To say I was discouraged is an understatement, but I toed the line like the relatively obedient kid I was. It wasn’t until years later, when I’d invested quite a bit of time in the “have a career” phase that I realized how unhappy I was.

You see, I didn’t follow my heart. I followed someone else’s “life formula” and that formula just wasn’t working for me. I got off the path I was on and started fresh on a new path. And I haven’t regretted it one damn bit. The only thing I regret is not getting on that path in the first place and wasting 8 years of my life doing something I really didn’t want to do.

My situation really isn’t anything like Theo’s in the book. Theo’s path was self-destructive, mine was constructive. But the point this passage reinforces is that we need to follow what our heart tells us is right, even if it doesn’t conform to what’s “normal” or what’s expected of us. I’m fortunate in that my heart usually steers me onto a path that I do want, one that’s good for me and others around me.

It just saddens me that people close to me have ignored their heart in favor of the easy life formula that’s considered “normal.” I know they will eventually regret taking the path they took — if they don’t already regret it.

Anyway, that’s my takeaway from this book. I recommend it if you like well-written prose and you don’t mind a dark story with a brighter ending.

One last thing. In prepping to write this, I Googled The Goldfinch. I wanted to see what the painting looked like. I was disappointed. What do you think?

A Weekend in Las Vegas

Business and pleasure.

I spent last weekend in Las Vegas. It was nice to get away.

I went for business. (Really!) The FAA was sponsoring an annual helicopter safety seminar at the Rivera hotel conference center. I signed up a few weeks ago. I figured that while I was up there I’d look into the employment situation. A friend of mine who works for the FAA had recommended that I apply for a tour pilot job with two Boulder City-based operators; I figured I’d stop in and drop off resumés.

Although I was hoping to fly up with some paying passengers, no one stepped forward to take advantage of the smoking deal I offered. That didn’t surprise me. And it turned out to be for the best — by driving up, I had my little Honda S2000 up there. It was sweet to cruise The Strip with the top down.

Here’s a quick rundown of my weekend, for those who wonder how someone who doesn’t gamble can stay busy in the casino capital of the world.

Friday: A Long Drive, Casual Job Hunt, and Visit with Friends

After dropping Penny off at boarding for the weekend, I made the drive up in late morning. I made excellent time, arriving in Boulder City in only 3-1/2 hours.

I stopped by each of the two operators wanted to visit. At the first, the person I needed to speak to was out to lunch. I left a resumé. At the second, I met up with the General Manager. We sat down and he interviewed me. We had a nice chat. I interview well; I have nothing to hide, am proud of my achievements, and have a lot of self-confidence. I also don’t need a job. The GM seemed to like me. At the end, however, he admitted that they weren’t hiring because they only had one helicopter in their fleet. He invited me to contact him in March when he planned to expand the business. Then he encouraged me to visit all of the area tour operators to get my name and resumé out.

I drove the rest of the way into Vegas. Along the way, I called my friend Jim. I had tentative plans to stay over at his new house on the west side of Las Vegas. It was early — only around 1 PM — and I needed to hook up with him. He was busy running errands. I told him I’d keep busy and call later.

I hit the McCarren-based tour operators and dropped off resumés. I got the same story from several of them: they weren’t hiring now; the busy season started in March or April. Since I already have a good gig for the summer, I probably won’t be flying in Las Vegas anytime soon. But that’s okay.

I hit the Fashion Show Mall next. I needed a new pair of flat black shoes — I’m not wearing Keds anymore — and figured I’d track them down in Dillards. It only took about 20 minutes to find and buy a pair. Then I wandered upstairs. I needed a suit jacket to wear with my skirt for my upcoming court date. A really helpful saleswoman worked with me to find the perfect jacket. A double success!

I also hit the Apple Store where I got a look at the iPad Mini and bought a new power adapter for my 13-inch MacBook Pro. Penny the Tiny Dog had chewed through the connector on my old one.

I called Jim again and got directions to his house. By 4 PM, I was ringing the doorbell on a huge one-story house in a gated community. Jim opened the door and invited me in. We went out to the backyard, where he showed off the bridge he’d just finished building over his Koi pond. His wife, Judith, joined us. We chatted for a while and then I got the tour of the house.

Jim and Judith lived in Wickenburg for quite some time. Like so many of my friends there, they got fed up with the town and decided to move. Although they stopped in a few places along the way, they wound up in Vegas, where they set up their business. With property values in Vegas so low, they were able to buy a great home and a 30,000 square foot industrial space for manufacturing Start Pacs.

Their new Las Vegas home is very nice. They did some work to close up extra doors, tear out walls to enlarge rooms, and finish everything with a fresh coat of paint. Then they hung their huge collection of Navajo rugs, arrowheads, and other items. The place is like a comfy museum, with plenty of art to admire.

They had a guest room for me, but when I realized that Judith was feeling under the weather, I decided that it might be best to stay in a hotel instead of imposing on her. So I booked a room at the Riviera and, after dinner, checked in.

I didn’t do much that night — I’m not a bar-hopper. But I did sleep extraordinarily well.

Saturday: 6 AM Coffee, a Hike, Safety Seminar, and Dinner with Friends

My Last Trip to Vegas
Throughout this trip, I kept thinking back to my last trip to Vegas, which had been with my ex-husband and his mother.

I’d flown the three of us up in the helicopter, following the Colorado River from Lake Havasu to Lake Mead — my favorite route. After landing at McCarran Airport, we’d checked in the Bellagio hotel, which is actually quite pleasant (sure beats the Riviera, anyway). Then the fun began. My husband had rented a motorized wheelchair-type device for his mom. I got to watch her run into several people in the Bellagio lobby before we ventured out. The highlight of the trip? Seeing her ram the chair into a glass showcase filled with glass trinkets in a shop. I think we were at the Venetian. Nothing broke, but I swear that the shopkeeper was ready to kill us.

Needless to say, despite the comedy, that trip wasn’t my idea of fun. So very glad I’ll never have to do that again.

I may have slept well, but I was still up at the crack of dawn. I consulted the Starbucks app on my phone and learned that there was a 24-hour Starbucks at Treasure Island, which was about a mile down the strip. I dressed, put on my hiking shoes, and hit the pavement.

I like walking in Las Vegas early in the morning before the traffic and tourists get thick on the streets and sidewalks. There’s something magical about this fantasy place, something that makes it special and just a little more real. Like a made-up whore before the johns arrive.

I walked briskly, passing other strollers and the occasional jogger running the opposite direction. The weather was great — nice and cool. At Starbucks, I got my first eggnog latte for the season and a danish. Then I wandered outside onto Treasure Island’s boardwalk to enjoy it.

My Safety Meeting wasn’t until 3 PM, followed by a social hour. That meant I had the entire morning to kill. When I got back to the hotel, I researched the hikes scheduled for the Around the Bend Friends hiking group. I decided I’d go for a hike with them.

But first, I needed a sweatshirt. You see, I’d brought along my old Robinson jacket in case the weather got chilly. The jacket had two problems: (1) It’s black. Black is not a good color to wear in the desert when the sun is out. (2) The jacket no longer fit me. I had lost so much weight that it was far too big on me. I hadn’t worn it in so long that I just didn’t know. So I hit Walgreens on the way back and paid $25 for a light pink (!) sweatshirt with the words “Las Vegas” stitched across the front in white. Not my first choice, but beggars can’t be choosers. I now own exactly one pink item of clothing.

I blogged extensively about my hike with the Around the Bend Friends here. Read it and check out the photos from the hike.

After the hike, I had some lunch in one of the Riviera’s restaurants. Not recommended. Then I showered and dressed for the afternoon event. My brother, who lives in New Jersey and had just gotten his power back after Hurricane Sandy, called and we spent almost an hour chatting. Then my friend Don called to invite me out to dinner; I obviously had to decline since I was 300 miles away.

The safety seminar was informative but relied to heavily on PowerPoint presentations. (Seriously: are people still using PowerPoint to communicate?) A pilot friend of mine, Amanda, was there and sat with me for the second half of the seminar. I chatted with two of the speakers after their presentations to share my feedback with them. I was pleasantly surprised when one of them told me that he regularly reads my blog. Later, at the “social hour,” two other pilots introduced themselves and told me they read my blog. How cool is that?

When the social hour was over, I joined Amanda and four other people for dinner at the Peppermill, which is right next door to the Riviera. It’s a funky place with a real, old-style Las Vegas decor. It specializes in offering breakfast, lunch, and dinner 24 hours a day. I had breakfast — an egg concoction that could have fed the entire table. We talked about helicopters and safety, especially in EMS operations, which one of us had studied extensively.

The subject of my divorce also came up and when I reported everything I’d been through — finding out about his lies and infidelity, being locked out of my home and hangar, having to fight him in court to live in my own home — they all agreed that my husband was an asshole and that I was so much better off without him. No argument from me. During this past summer, he turned into an angry and hateful old man — I guess it rubbed off on him from the woman he’s sleeping with these days — and I can’t bear to see him anymore. (I can’t help but wonder what other maladies he caught from her.) So sad when a good man turns bad.

I was back in my room and ready for bed by 11 PM. Like I said — I’m not much for bar-hopping.

Sunday: A Long Walk and a Surprise Visit from a Friend

I woke up relatively late on Sunday, but since we had to set the clocks back, it was still early. I got my coffee in the hotel and wrote up the blog post about the previous day’s hike. Then I showered, dressed, and got on with my day.

Along the way, I’d checked in on Facebook. My friend Janet, who lives in Colorado, was on her way to Death Valley. She’d planned to spend the night in Mesquite, NV, which was about an hour from Vegas. We chatted on the phone and I convinced her to come all the way to Vegas and share my room. I had two beds. We’d go out that night and do something interesting.

This is what convinced me to spend the extra day in Vegas. I’d originally planned to come home on Monday, but was thinking that I was pretty much done with Vegas and would prefer to be home with my dog. But with Janet coming to see me, it made sense to stick around. The extra night in the room was certainly no financial burden. And it wasn’t as if I had anything vital to do at home.

But I still had the whole day to kill. I figured I’d kill it by doing a casino walk.

I’m not a gambler, but I like Las Vegas. I like the craziness of the casinos. The decor, the themes. The shops, the restaurants. My ex-husband seemed to share this interest with me — we’d often spend hours just walking from casino to casino, checking things out. It had been a long time since I did a casino walk and there were new casinos on the strip to explore. So I hopped in the car, drove it down to Luxor where parking was easy, and began my walk.

If you’re a friend of mine on Facebook, you’ve probably seen the photos. I checked in at almost every hotel/casino I walked through and included a photo. I’ll share a few of them here.

Inside Luxor
Inside Luxor.

Led Zep shirt
This shirt was for sale at Urban Outfitters. The sad part: I saw Led Zep on this tour at Madison Square Garden.

Ahi Tacos
My lunch at Fleur: Ahi Tacos.

Excalibur
The absurdity of Excalibur is mind-boggling.

New York New YorkNew York New York is a caricature of New York City, with a roller coaster just for kicks.

At Monte Carlo
Monte Carlo, like some of the other nicer hotels, has reproductions of classic sculpture.

At Crystals
I loved the seasonal decor at the Crystals shopping center.

Sewing Machines
All exterior windows of this shop at the Cosmopolitan were lined with old sewing machines — hundreds of them!

Inside the Conservatory
Bellagio’s Conservatory is always decorated for the seasons.

At the Forum Shops
At the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace.

Dessert
Banana tiramisu and latte at Olives.

In Luxor, I walked around the atrium level. I remember when the hotel was brand new. They had an arcade and several virtual reality rides. All that is gone now. There’s a Titanic exhibit which I would have seen if it weren’t $35. There’s also a great model of the Titanic down on the main lobby level, across from Registration.

I headed out toward Mandalay Bay. Along the way, I sopped at Urban Outfitters and bought a pair of shoes, two t-shirts, and a leather jacket. I restaurant-shopped at Mandalay Bay and settled on Fleur, where I enjoyed Ahi Tacos and a flatbread.

I hopped on the tram to Excalibur. I walked in only to refresh my memory. The place is as dark and sleazy on the inside as I remember it. I didn’t stay long. I wished I’d brought along some hand sanitizer.

From there, it was a short walk to New York New York. I’m not very fond of this place, either, although it sure beats Excalibur. I walked through to the other side, taking a short side trip to a magic shop to see what kinds of tricks they had for sale.

Then across the street to MGM Grand. They were doing some construction in there, so I didn’t stick around.

I crossed back to the west side of the Strip and visited the Monte Carlo. I’d stayed there once long ago — I can’t remember if it was with or without my ex-husband. (Really memorable trip, huh?) It’s a nice place — a lot classier than the ones I’d visited so far (except maybe Mandalay Bay), but not nearly as classy as others still to come on my walking tour. As I exited to the north, I stopped in at a cupcake shop and bought two cupcakes for later when Janet arrived.

From there, I hopped on another tram and took it one stop to City Center, which didn’t exist the last time I was in Vegas. This is an extremely upscale indoor mall fully occupied by shops that didn’t have a single customer in them. The same was true for the Crystals mall across the street. That one, at least, had interesting seasonal decor and lots of overweight midwesterners gawking. There was also some kinetic art, including lucite columns filled with whirlpools. Fascinating to look at closely.

The next stop was the Cosmopolitan, which is also new to me. I was impressed. It was trendy, but not ostentatious. Lots of young people staying there. Restaurants and shops that look approachable. I think I might stay there on my next visit, in March.

Bellagio, which I was familiar with from previous visits, was next. I visited the conservatory, which is decorated with plants and other items for each season. We were still in the autumn season, so there was an animatronic tree — very popular with the tourists — and a building with a watermill. I like that room — so festive and bright! Afterwards, I began my search for desert. I was hoping for Italian pastries and came up just a little short at the pastry/gelato shop near the Conservatory. So I kept moving.

Sometime around then, Facebook told me that a friend of mine, Tom, was nearby. Tom’s a pilot who works near Lake Havasu doing EMS. I posted a message to Tom. For the next two hours, we’d play message tag as I tried to zero in on his location for a possible meetup.

Next stop, Caesar’s Palace. This is an old hotel that they’ve managed to keep up-to-date and classy. I’m pretty sure it was the first hotel to be positioned back from Las Vegas Boulevard — although additions throughout the years have brought certain elements (such as the Forum Shops and a restaurant) right up to the street. I wandered through with my sights set on the Ferrara’s pastry shop I remembered in the Forum Shops. That’s where I’d get dessert. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. The pastry shop was gone and the pastries in the nearby coffee shop looked like they were from the previous day. Ick.

By that point, I’d come a full two miles from my starting point, most of it on foot. With the added wandering through casinos and shops, I figured I’d walked about three miles. I wasn’t the least bit tired and, because I’d worn my hiking shoes, my feet felt fine. Still, it was getting late and I figured it was time to walk back. And I still needed to find dessert.

I walked back from the Forum Shops along the street, trying to keep in the shade. It was very warm out. I’d stowed the short-sleeved shirt I wore over my tank top and was fine as long as I didn’t spend much time in the sun. I was sad to see that the Imperial Palace hotel/casino had shut down. It was one of the old timers. (Sahara has also shut down.)

When I got to the northeast entrance to Bellagio, I went right in. And that’s where I found desert: at Todd English’s Olives restaurant. I sat at the bar and enjoyed an excellent banana tiramisu with a latte.

Another message from Tom said he was having pizza at New York New York. I decided to try to catch him there. I took the tram from Bellagio to Monte Carlo, then walked to New York New York. But I was too late. I later found out that he had moved on to a sports bar to watch the game with his friends.

I walked the rest of the way back to my car at Luxor. My phone was nearly dead — I’d been checking in on Facebook all day long. But it wasn’t too dead to get a phone call from Janet. She was within sight of the city. There was a chance that she’d get to the Riviera before I did. Good thing I hadn’t found Tom.

I figure I walked 5 to 6 miles, most of which was at a good, brisk pace. I felt great — not tired at all.

I took back roads to the Riviera to avoid traffic on The Strip, but Janet still beat me there. It was great to see her. We went back to the room where we could chat and she could rest after her 8-hour drive. I filled her in on the bullshit going on at home. Like me, she still can’t believe how my ex-husband had changed over the summer. But she’d been with me when I arrived home in September to find the locks on the house and hangar changed. And she saw the damage to the boxes of my belongings that he’d carelessly stowed in the hangar before the floodwaters came. She knew the truth of the matter and, like me, couldn’t deny what he’d become.

Later on, we headed back out in my car. I’d tried my new leather jacket on again and decided I’d rather have one size larger. So we headed for Urban Outfitters at Mandalay Bay with the idea of Asian food at Rice at Luxor. (Remember, I’d scoped out all the restaurants.) The jacket wasn’t available in a larger size, so I just returned it. And then I suggested martinis at Red Square, a vodka bar in Mandalay Bay.

We wound up spending the entire evening there. They had a special that included 1/2 ounce of caviar with all the fixings if you bought two drinks with a certain Russian vodka. I love caviar and was willing to try the vodka. Both were excellent. We drank and ate and drank. Two rounds. And then topped it off with a round of Remy Martin VSOP.

Amazingly, I was sober enough to drive us back. Unfortunately, something I ate or drank — or perhaps it was the mix of vodka and Remy — made me sick. I lost all that nice vodka and caviar before going to bed.

Sunday: Recovery, Factory Tour, and a Long Drive Home

I wasn’t feeling much better when I woke up. I figured a hot shower would fix me right up, so I jumped in. Wrong. It made me feel worse. In fact, I puked up the water I’d had since waking.

Not good. I got back into bed, feeling like crap. Janet did her morning stuff, then went down in search of some chamomile tea and plain bread. By the time she returned, I was feeling well enough to sip tea and nibble a bagel. Janet got packed up to move on — she was spending that night with a friend camped out in town before heading to Death Valley. I got out of bed, dressed, and put on my makeup. By the time she was back from loading her van, I was almost ready to go.

We said our goodbyes and I finished packing. By 9:30 AM, I was back in my car, heading for Jim’s Start Pac factory near the airport. I got a warm welcome and a good tour of the place. It’s a great building in a nice industrial area — much nicer than his last place in Vegas. Lots of room to expand. He showed me his whole product line, including a self-propelled APU that he has a patent on. Jim’s a real inventor who follows through on his ideas. (Unlike another man who called himself an “inventor” when I first met him 29 years ago.) We chatted some more about the divorce — everyone wants the details — and I left with even more encouraging words.

I made two more stops on the way home: Another try with meeting up with a potential employer (unsuccessful) and Vons to buy some lunch. Realizing that the time change was working against me if I wanted to pick up Penny at boarding by 5:30, I hit the road. I ate a half sandwich and drank some water along the way. I still felt a bit weak from my stomach problem, but at least I was keeping food down.

I made good time on the way back and arrived in Wickenburg just before 4 PM local time. Penny was thrilled to see me. Both of us were glad to be home.

One final note…although I ate very heartily while I was away and was convinced that I gained several pounds over the weekend, I was thrilled to see the scale registering exactly what it had before I left. (I don’t think it had anything to do with my stomach problem on Sunday night/Monday morning; I didn’t really puke up that much food.) I’m starting to think that my metabolism has actually changed — possibly because of the higher level of activity I have now that I’m single and have a real social life. Yet another way divorce has been good to me.

Hiking with Strangers

Again.

Now that I’m back in shape, I’m very interested in staying in shape. That means exercise.

I tried the gym in Wickenburg, but soon got tired of waiting for the seniors using the equipment to stop resting on the equipment when I was trying to go through my workout routine. I’ve got some weights at the house and I use them pretty regularly now to build back muscle tone, especially in my upper arms.

For other exercise, however, I’ll stick to the thing I like best: hiking.

Recent Hikes

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I’ve gone out of my way to find people to hike with. These folks start out as perfect strangers, but if I hike with them repeatedly, they become friends. So I basically kill two birds with one stone: I get exercise doing something I like to do and I make new friends.

(I should mention here that losing my husband has made all this possible. With him around, I didn’t do much of anything outdoors — and I certainly didn’t have any opportunities to meet new people. He’s not interested in expanding his horizons. He’s just interested in staying in his cocoon with the people he’s comfortable with. That means about six friends for dining out and going to the occasional ball game. That “social life” was the absolute pits for me. I’m so glad I’m able to do so much better without him.)

At West Fork Hike
Two of my friends from the Phoenix Atheist Meetup Group on the West Fork hike. The primary focus of the hike was to enjoy the fall colors.

The first group I started hiking with was the Phoenix Atheist Meetup Group. This is a huge group of people with many activities every week. But a subset of the group does weekly hikes — usually on Sunday mornings when other folks are at church. I’ve been on three hikes with them so far: Grapevine Canyon (Mayer), Soldier Pass (Sedona), and West Fork (Sedona). They are a great group of people and I really enjoy their company. I’ll be doing another hike with them in a week or so out in the Superstition Mountains.

I also hiked with another Meetup group, the Arizona Sierra Club Singles. Their hike was close to home for me: Vulture Peak. I didn’t blog about it, mostly because I didn’t have much to say that was positive. The group was small, they started the hike too late in the day — after 9 AM — so it was brutally hot on the return trip, and they weren’t very friendly. Indeed, each person seemed interested in hiking alone or with just one other person. No one waited for anyone else, no one seemed to care whether the last person was having trouble keeping up. I made the hike to the saddle quicker than I had ever done before, then made the tedious climb to the top of the peak to join the four or five other people up there. No one seemed to care whether I fell to my death in the hand-over-hand climbing part that really is dangerous. And when I got up there, triumphant, exhausted, and sweating like a pig, they were all ready to come back down. Not wanting to be left up there alone, I hurried after them, spending less than five minutes on the peak. Needless to say, I probably won’t be hiking with them again. I just wasn’t impressed.

It’s interesting to me how two groups of people can be so different. The Sierra Club members, who supposedly care about the environment, etc, were all caught up in their own little worlds, completely unfriendly and mostly uncaring about newcomers. The Atheists, who are frowned upon by god-fearing Christians who consider them immoral and perhaps evil, were friendly and caring, eager to make me feel welcome, even on my first hike with them. Whodathunkit? So much for stereotypes.

Hiking with the Around the Bend Friends

When I mentioned on Facebook that I’d be spending a few days in Las Vegas for business and was interested in doing a hike while I was there, one of my Facebook friends suggested the Around the Bend Friends hiking group. I followed the link and found a simple Website that showed pictures from recent hikes and a calendar of upcoming hikes. I was amazed to see that these people had a hike schedule almost every single day. When I got to Las Vegas and realized my Saturday morning was wide open, I checked the site again, found two hikes scheduled for that morning, and joined the group for the shorter of the two: Pine Creek in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. From the hike description:

The leisurely Saturday hike leading off the month will involve another partial loop route, but it will be somewhat shorter at 3 miles. After passing the Wilson homestead foundation, the trail crosses the creek just after the start of the Arnight Trail, then branches off heading upstream along the creek toward the base of Mescalito Peak. One more crossing of the creek to the north bank involves some very minor scrambling. Overall, the hike is rated easy to moderate and gains between 100 and 200 feet of elevation. The group will meet at Best Buy for an 8:30 AM departure.

I met the group as scheduled in the Best Buy parking lot on the west end of Charleston Boulevard. I was among the first to arrive. I signed in as a guest and chatted with the hike leader, Rick, before dashing across the street to get a cup of coffee at Burger King. (Don’t ask.) At 8:30 sharp, Rick did a brief introduction to the hike and the 16 people who had gathered climbed into cars and headed out to Red Rock Canyon park.

Pine Creek Trailhead View
A waning gibbous moon is setting behind the mountains in this view from the Pine Creek trailhead.

I drove alone, top down, enjoying the cool morning air. It was less than 10 miles to the park entrance and then another 10 miles to the trailhead. The road wound through the desert, past amazing red rock formations and parking areas for overlooks and trailheads. At the Pine Creek parking areas, I took the first parking spot I could find and climbed out to join the group at the trailhead.

The Around the Bend Friends bill themselves as “a group of young-at-heart people age 50 and over who participate in outdoor activities in the areas and states surrounding Las Vegas.” That’s a good description. At 51, I was one of the youngest in attendance. But these weren’t old folk like those catching their breath on the exercise equipment at Wickenburg’s gym. These people were active and physically fit. And, as we headed down the trail, it was clear that they were light on their feet and well able to scramble around and over the rocks in our path. Yes, they were older folks. But I know plenty of young people that wouldn’t be able to keep up with them.

The terrain was rugged, with more rock formations and lots of almost salmon colored sand under foot. The trail wound through the desert, passing the ruins of an old homestead before descending down to a spring-fed creek. There were plenty of photo opportunities that included not only trees turning yellow for autumn, but views of the distinctive Mescalito Peak.

Autumn Colors Along Pine Creek
Autumn colors along the Pine Creek Trail.

Mescalito PeakMescalito Peak from the Wilson homestead ruins.

We crossed the creek by hopping from rock to rock, then followed the narrow trail that snaked along the other side in the shade. I was surprised at the vegetation: a mix of manzanita and the biggest holly bushes I’d ever seen, along with cacti and other native plants. Because of the relative moisture in the area, the plants grew large and close to the trail. There was a lot of scrambling around rocks and bushes along the way.

The pace was moderate — not too slow to be boring, but not too fast to leave people behind. Rick was in charge of making sure we all stayed together and he led the group accordingly. Although we did stretch out several times, he paused to make sure we’d all gathered together before going on again. It was nice to see someone taking responsibility for the hike. (The Atheist group uses handheld radios for the same purpose, mostly because of the wide range of hiking skills among members of the group.)

My Fellow Hikers
My fellow hikers.

Rock wall with climbers

Climbers

Climbers

The rock wall where we saw the climbers. The insets are blown up from the original image; not clear but clear enough to see the climbers.

Back on the creek bed, where the trail began its return loop, we stopped for a rest in the shade. We’d been hiking about an hour. We chatted among ourselves while munching energy bars and pieces of fruit and sipping water. It was about 10 AM and it was cool in the shade. One of the members looked up at the rock wall we could see between the trees and spotted climbers. We counted four of them; we met others on their way to the rock wall on our return hike.

Once we’d rested for a while, we continued the hike’s loop trail, returning along the base of the rock wall in the sun. Although I’d started the hike with a sweatshirt on, I soon stripped it off. The sun was strong, but not yet overpowering. I really felt its heat on my black jeans. If the hike had been later in the day, I probably would have roasted. (But then again, I probably would have worn shorts.)

I handled the climb back up to the trailhead admirably. In my fat days, I would have needed at least three rest stops along the way. But with 45 pounds less weight to lug around, I didn’t even get winded on the way up. I was left again to wonder why the hell it took me so long to get that extra weight off — and why other people don’t do the same.

Rick passed around the sign in sheet for each of us to sign out. It was after 11 AM; I had four hours to kill before my afternoon meeting. I climbed back into the car, put the top down, and headed back to the city.

Hiking with Strangers

Would I hike with the Around the Bend Friends again? You bet!

With resources like Meetup to find hiking groups and other groups like the Around the Bend Friends out there, it’s easy to get out for a hike with others. Even if they start out as strangers, they can soon be friends.

Wickenburg to Las Vegas by Helicopter

Again.

I couldn’t have asked for better weather. That’s what I was thinking as I preflighted my helicopter early on Wednesday morning.

I’d been hired to take three people from Wickenburg to the Las Vegas area with the primary objective of viewing the new bridge near the Hoover Dam from the air. My client, who had flown with me several times before, was willing to make the four-hour round-trip flight by helicopter — and pay for it — just for a look. To make the trip more worth his while, we’d also land at Boulder City Municipal Airport, where they’d rent a car and drive over to the dam for a tour. After lunch, they’d come back to the airport, climb back on board, and I’d take them for a Vegas Strip tour before returning to Wickenburg.

I’d mounted my GoPro Hero camera on the helicopter’s nose and set it up to shoot 720p video of the flight. I expected the flight up there to yield some good images and, if the camera was mounted properly, some smooth video footage. The camera seems to work best with the light behind the helicopter. On the way back, we’d by flying with the sun in front of us, so I didn’t have high expectations. Still, I brought along a pair of 16GB SD cards and the camera’s charger so I could capture it all. The images throughout this narrative are stills taken from that video.

The Flight Up

A thin, almost lacy layer of high clouds veiled the sky as we headed northwest from Wickenburg just after 8:30 AM. There wasn’t a breath of wind. The helicopter glided over the desert, 500 feet off the ground passing over cacti and other desert vegetation, open range cattle, and the occasional manmade water “tanks,” half of which were dry. Our departure from “civilization” to empty desert was almost immediate. As I often tell people, Wickenburg is on the edge of nowhere; I could just as easily say it’s a five minute flight from nowhere. We passed over a lonely ranch alongside the railroad tracks leading to Parker and beyond, then Route 71, which runs between Aguila and Congress, AZ. Then not a single building for thirty miles, when we reached the Wayside Inn and Alamo Lake.

Alamo Lake
Alamo Lake, at the confluence of the Big Sandy River, Santa Maria River, and Date Creek. The trickle of water released from the dam is the Bill Williams River, which eventually joins the Colorado River north of Parker, AZ.

I climbed not only to cross the lake within gliding distance of shore but to clear the mountains on the far side. As we crossed the lake, I was surprised by the number of campers parked alongside its shore and the boats tied up nearby. I suspected that a fishing tournament might be either starting or finishing up. The lake is popular with fisherman, which is probably a good thing. It’s so remote — heck, it’s a 90-minute drive from Wickenburg — that it simply doesn’t appeal to the typical powerboat/jetski crowd. They usually prefer Lake Pleasant, only 30 minutes from Phoenix (or Wickenburg), which is larger and far more interesting for boating.

Beyond the lake and the rugged mountains on its opposite shore was yet another stretch of empty desert. But rather than being just a flat expanse, this one was peppered with rock formations left behind by ancient volcanos. There were areas of broken basalt, including flat-topped mesas. In the distance, to our left, we could catch glimpses of the Colorado River. If we’d been in a plane, flying 3,000 feet higher, we’d have a better view of the river and mountains in the distance; at our cruise altitude of 500 to 1000 feet above the desert floor, we could clearly see the details of the rock formations, dry stream beds, and scant vegetation as we flew.

Beyond Alamo
The desert northwest of Alamo Lake is vast and empty.

Forty-five miles from Alamo Lake, we reached Lake Havasu, one of the Colorado River’s many lakes. Formed by Parker Dam far to the south, the lake widens in a broad valley. The founders of Lake Havasu City bought the London Bridge — the real London Bridge from England — and had it installed across a manmade canal as a tourist draw. The town formed nearby. It’s popular for water sports and has a huge influx of visitors during boat races and Spring Break. A friend of mine who lives there complains that the temperatures top 100°F six months out of the year.

Lake Havasu
Lake Havasu’s surface was mirror calm as we flew over, reflecting not only the graceful arches of London Bridge, but the clouds high above.

I’d chosen our route carefully. Two hours is a long time to spend in a helicopter, especially out over the desert where the terrain can be — and, up to that point had been — very monotonous. I planned the trip to follow the Colorado River, which was quite scenic. From that point on, we’d be over one shore or another or at least nearby. It would give my passengers something interesting to see for the second hour of the flight.

Indeed, the scenery along the river can be breathtaking — especially where the river narrows and passes through mountainous terrain. Topock Gorge is one of those places. Although it’s a short stretch of river and takes only five minutes or so to overfly, it’s dramatic and rugged. During the summer season, when the lake busy, speedboats roar through this area all day long. But that day, the lake was calm and quiet and we were treated to beautiful reflections of the sky and canyon walls.

Topock Gorge
Topock Gorge is one of the more scenic areas along the Colorado River between Lake Havasu City and Bullhead City.

Past the gorge, the river twists and turns in big arcs to the east and west. Rather than follow its course exactly, we headed almost due north. We passed over I-40 where it crosses the Colorado and the farms and communities built up in the Mohave Valley. This was also desert, but desert made habitable by the river that passed through it. Make no mistake: we were still miles from anything remotely resembling a real city — but at least there were people living here.

Mohave Valley
The Mohave Valley, near Needles, CA, is full of farms and small communities clustered up near the Colorado River.

A while later, we were within range of Bullhead City Airport and I called the controller for permission to transition the area along the river. Bullhead City Airport is a real oddity. It was built on the Arizona side of the river to support the casinos in Laughlin, NV. Although it’s well over 100 miles from any international border, it’s an International airport, meaning that you can fly into it from other countries and pass through customs and immigration. It even gets airline traffic; as we flew through the area, a Sun Country 737 was coming in to land. But the airport itself gets very little traffic. This might be because of the natural “wind tunnel” that funnels air up or down the river, resulting in winds that often top 20 knots. But that day, the wind was calm — the first time ever that I’d been there — and other than the jet, we were the only other traffic in the area.

Laughlin, NV
The tall casinos of Laughlin, NV across the river from Bullhead City, AZ. You can see the Bullhead City airport on the far right.

Beyond Laughlin and Bullhead City was the Davis Dam, which forms Lake Mohave. Lake Mohave is another one of the oddities of the desert. Although there are a few marinas and campgrounds along its southern shores, most of the lake is deserted and I seldom see any boat traffic on it. Again, this is likely because of its remote location — although access is easy from the Laughlin area. It seems to me that Lake Mohave would be a great place to become a houseboat hermit.

Davis Dam
The Davis Dam is just upriver from Laughlin and Bullhead City.

Lake Mohave
Lake Mohave seems like the perfect place to get away from it all on a clear, blue lake.

We flew up the eastern shore of the lake and I kept a sharp eye out for wild burros (donkeys). I’d seen them there before. While their trails were easily visible from the air, I didn’t see any animals — or people — at all.

The north end of the lake narrows considerably where the Colorado River winds through a gorge. The rock formations are rugged and starkly beautiful. This isn’t the place you’d want an engine failure — there aren’t many places for an emergency landing. But the landscape draws me to this area each time I fly up the river.

Colorado River
The Colorado River on the north end of Lake Mohave passes through a rugged gorge.

I tuned into the Lake Mead/Hoover Dam tour helicopter frequency and began monitoring communications. I knew that the area around the dam would be full of traffic and wasn’t sure what altitude pilots would be flying at. Routes and procedures are not published; my attempt to get this information from a tour operator failed miserably. (These operators apparently think they own the places they fly over and do what they can to keep everyone else out.)

I reached Willow Beach and made my first call. “Helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima at Willow Beach, heading for the bridge at 2500 feet.”

Some wise-ass tour pilot came on the radio and said “Which bridge? Hoover?”

What an idiotic question. There was only one bridge within 60 air miles. Which bridge did he think? What kind of morons are those tour companies hiring?

“Hoover,” I replied.

“Be advised that there will be four Maverick helicopters over the dam in about two minutes,” he replied. No indication of altitude or any other useful information.

Other pilots were more generous. Although the Papillon Pilots seemed to be crossing the river farther south at 3500 feet, the Maverick pilots were operating near the dam at 3000 feet. I planned to say at 2500 feet, which would keep me out of their way.

The bridge came into view around the same time the Maverick helicopters started appearing overhead. They were flying an odd S-shaped pattern that was obviously designed to give all their passengers a view. I did a three-quarter circle from the right to the left as my passengers leaned forward and then left to see. They got a good look — I was not prepared to loiter and they didn’t seem as if they needed me to. Then I was exiting the area along the road to Boulder City.

Hoover Dam and Bridge
The Hoover Dam and its new bridge are a popular tourist attraction for Las Vegas visitors. They’re amazing from the air.

I wasn’t finished yet, though. Another tour operator does very short tours of the dam and bridge from the Hacienda Hotel just up the road. He was preparing to launch as I flew over. He kindly said he’d wait until I’d passed by, then thanked me for talking on the radio. (Apparently, some pilots don’t — that’s a scary thought.) I thanked him for listening.

Not knowing the approach procedures for Boulder City Airport and anxious to stay out of the way of any other tour traffic, I stayed low as I crossed over the city and headed for the airport. (I was later told I’d likely get in trouble for that, but no one ever called. I guess I lucked out.) There were skydivers falling from the sky near the airport so, to stay clear, I circled around to the east and landed along one of the runways. I was still on edge from mixing with so much other traffic when I set down on one of the helicopter parking spots for the FBO.

Boulder City
Boulder City was built 90 years ago to provide a home for dam construction crews. It’s since grown to a vibrant community — the only one in Nevada that does not allow gambling.

We’d been in the air for 2.2 hours and I was ready for a break.

More about this trip in another post…

My Las Vegas Weekend

Something I’d prefer not to repeat any time soon.

If you follow me on Twitter or read this blog regularly, you know that I spent last weekend in Las Vegas doing a multi-day charter flight for two women from Prescott. The job was to fly them by helicopter to Vegas, where they’d spend two nights as part of a family get-together, and then take them home on Sunday afternoon. It was just the kind of gig a pilot looks forward to: an all expense paid weekend in Las Vegas. As an added bonus: the weather would be perfect.

Our Route

Our route to and from Las Vegas, as recorded by my Spot personal tracking device.

I picked them up at Prescott Airport (PRC) on Friday afternoon. My passengers were great people, although they seem to have packed enough luggage for two weeks instead of two days. (Honestly, how many changes of clothes does a person need in less than 48 hours?) I took off from Prescott at about 3:15 PM and made a beeline for the Hoover Dam 140 nautical miles away. My goal was to be on the ground in Las Vegas before dark.

Strike 1: Fuel Pump Failure

We were about 60 NM short of the dam, not far from Hackberry, AZ on old Route 66, when the Aux Fuel warning light illuminated. I remember thinking to myself: Oh no, not again. I checked the circuit breaker for the pump and sure enough, it had popped out. I pushed it back in. It popped right back out. So there I was, in the middle of nowhere, with an auxiliary fuel pump failure.

As I’ve written elsewhere in this blog, the auxiliary fuel pump is a redundant piece of equipment on a Robinson R44 helicopter. Although it’s required for operation on launch — in other words, I can’t legally take off if it isn’t working — it doesn’t do anything in flight except wait around for the engine-driven fuel pump to fail. Fortunately, that fuel pump is apparently much better designed and built because it doesn’t seem to fail at all. This particular auxiliary fuel pump was the third one that had failed on my helicopter since it was new 5 years (about 1100 hours) before.

As a pilot, I had a decision to make. I could:

  • Hackberry

    We were right about here when the auxiliary fuel pump failed. That group of buildings on the right is Hackberry.

    Land there in the middle of nowhere where it would be extremely difficult to get help. Not only would this ruin my passengers’ weekend by delaying them at least 5 hours, but it would be extremely costly for me to get them (and me) transportation anywhere else. This was something I considered for only a moment. The helicopter was running fine and the emergency procedure says land as soon as practical. Hackberry, AZ was not a practical place to land.

  • Detour to Kingman. Kingman, AZ was about 12 NM southwest. It was marginally better than Hackberry and the same arguments against it apply. But given a choice between Hackberry or Kingman, I would have gone to Kingman.
  • Return to base. The Robinson guy I spoke to yesterday said that on an auxiliary fuel pump failure I should go back to base, but since I was much closer to my destination than base (Deer Valley Airport in Phoenix), going back to base seemed pretty silly. Frankly, I didn’t even consider it.
  • Continue the flight to Las Vegas. This seemed to make the most sense. Again, the helicopter was flying fine. There were several small communities and one or two small airports along the way. If I started experiencing any problems, I could set down there.

I chose the last option.

Again, everything was running smoothly so I wasn’t really worried. Just a little more alert than usual, listening hard for an engine hiccup that might indicate a fuel flow problem.

Problem-Solving

As we flew, the back of my mind worked on the problem I now had to deal with: getting the pump replaced before 1 PM on Sunday. It was actually a two-part problem:

  • Getting a fuel pump. The last time the pump had failed, I’d tried unsuccessfully to find a replacement locally. The Robinson Helicopter Company had them in stock, but they’d shortly be closed for the weekend and I’d missed their shipping window anyway.
  • Finding a mechanic to install the fuel pump. The last time I’d had mechanical problems in Las Vegas, Silver State Helicopters had still been in business there. Their mechanic had come to McCarren and made a ramp repair. But Silver State was gone and I had no connections in Vegas for repairs. Especially on a weekend.

Understand that if I didn’t get it fixed by midday Sunday, I’d have to:

  • Provide alternative transportation for my clients back to Prescott. That meant two plane tickets from Las Vegas to Phoenix followed by a 160-mile round trip car service ride.
  • Refund at least part of the money my clients had paid me to fly them up to Vegas or provide them with a 2-hour flight somewhere else in the future.
  • Spend additional time in Las Vegas, incurring more costs while I remained unproductive.

That would cost more than a repair — and I’d still need the repair.

Hoover Dam and Bridge

One of my favorite photos from our Prescott to Las Vegas flight on Friday.

The answer came to me not long after crossing over the Hoover Dam and its new bridge. My Seattle mechanic had made a “hangar call” in Phoenix for another one of his customers in October. Maybe he’d come to Vegas. And since he had a bunch of R44s, if he didn’t have the pump on a shelf, he could pull one out of a helicopter temporarily as a loaner. It seemed like a good bet. After all, who would turn down a free trip to Vegas?

Luxor and Excalibur

Only in Las Vegas can a pilot fly between a glass pyramid and a garishly painted medieval castle.

My route took us up the west shore of Lake Mead to Lake Las Vegas, then west into the sinking sun toward the Stratosphere. We crossed over the Strip as tourists in the tower beside us took photos of us, then headed south along I-15 on the west side of the Strip. I turned base leg between Luxor’s pyramid and Excalibur’s medieval castle, then came in for landing on the Atlantic Aviation ramp on the northwest corner of McCarren Airport (LAS).

While my passengers visited the ladies room in the FBO, I was on the phone with Rich, my mechanic. Within 10 minutes, we had a solution. He’d fly to Vegas that weekend and replace the pump.

While this seems like a happy ending, it would also be an expensive one. I’d have to cover Rich’s round trip airfare to Vegas — with tickets bought at the last minute — and pay a weekend labor rate about three times his normal rate that would also apply to the four hours of travel time. And the pump would cost another $1,600. Plus, in order to facilitate transportation for Rich and any needs he might have, I rented a car at the FBO for $85/day. My free trip to Vegas had suddenly become very expensive.

Strike 2: Rio “All Suites” Hotel

My reservations were at the Rio, an off-the-strip hotel that markets itself as having all suites. I wanted to be comfortable for my stay, so I’d looked into it. Vegas is hurting in this economy and deals are everywhere. I got an upgraded “Strip-view suite” for $80/night.

They put me on the 23rd floor of the tower. I looked out the window, expecting to see the Strip. I didn’t. I called the desk. After speaking with three different people, they agreed that my room was not Strip-view. Since I’d paid for Strip view, they moved me to a room on the 26th floor. They’d send a bellman up with my new keys.

Rio View

The view from my room around sunset. Okay, so it doesn’t suck, but it isn’t what I expected, either.

I waited 30 minutes for the bellman. When I got to my new room, I found that it was on the same side of the hotel. But because the hotel was curved, it had a partial view of the Strip. That’s the best they were willing to do.

As far as the “suite” part of the room’s description goes, the folks at the Rio obviously have a different idea of what a suite is. To me, a suite is either two rooms or one room with a divider between living and sleeping areas. Embassy Suites has suites. What I had at the Rio was a big room with a bed, sofa, desk, and TV that faced neither the bed nor the sofa. It was not, by any stretch of my imagination, a suite.

There was nothing very appealing about the room at all. It was rather run down, although the bed was comfortable and there were plenty of pillows. The business part of the bathroom — shower and toilet — was small, although the outer area was quite large. The climate control system clanked every time it kicked on, so I left it turned off at night so I could sleep.

I won’t be staying at the Rio again and I don’t recommend it to anyone.

My advice to anyone who wants a nice room in Las Vegas: stay in a hotel less than 5 years old — there are plenty to choose from — on the Strip.

Strike 3: Buffet Dinner

I was meeting friends who were in Vegas for National Finals Rodeo (NFR), which was finishing up on Saturday. I’d invited them to join me for dinner. To compromise on our food choices, I picked the Rio’s buffet, which I’d heard was very good.

As usual with Las Vegas and so many American things, quantity seems more valued than quality. Yes, the buffet had over 300 items to choose from. But none of them were outstanding. In fact, unless you like to stuff yourself with mediocre food — which I don’t — it was a huge disappointment.

But they did have a good bread pudding for desert, and my friends seemed happy enough. Still, I won’t be eating there again.

Hit 1: Sleep

I slept remarkably well. Although the room was right next to the elevators and vending area, it was quiet. There was a bit of noise when my next door neighbors came in — the room had a connecting door — but they got quiet pretty quickly. And, thankfully, I didn’t have to listen to them having sex.

I did wake for the day at 4 AM, but that was to be expected. I was on Arizona time, and I usually wake around 5 AM there. I got a blog post written and posted using Bluetooth tethering on my BlackBerry to access the Internet, then showered and started my day.

Hit 2: Walking/Shopping Las Vegas

I am not a gambler. I don’t see the point. To me, the people parked on stools in front of slot machines like zombies are missing out on the finer points of life. The people at gaming tables are at least getting some social interaction — but at what cost?

Las Vegas is one of the freakishly weird places on earth and there’s nothing more interesting to me than to explore it on foot.

So after visiting my friends at the Cowboy Christmas market they were participating in at the Hilton’s convention center, I headed over to the Las Vegas Fashion Mall on the Strip. I got a great parking spot under the mall and went up on a mission: Buy a Verizon MiFi.

You see, back when I bought my iPad, I made a conscious decision to go with the WiFi only version. I was already paying for Internet three ways and couldn’t see adding a fourth. Besides — silly me — I thought Apple might enable Bluetooth tethering, like I could use with my MacBook Pro and Verizon BlackBerry Storm.

Two things happened:

  • Outrageous WiFi Price

    Yes, the Las Vegas Convention Center wanted $99 a day to access their WiFi.

    I started traveling with my iPad only. Without my MacBook Pro, I couldn’t set up an Airport Network to share my Internet connection with my iPad. If WiFi wasn’t available, I couldn’t use Internet features on my iPad. And I was certainly not going to spend $9 to $99 a day to access the Internet at a hotel without free WiFi. (I’m addicted, but not that badly.)

  • I began using Square. Square is this great system for accepting payment by credit card. It requires an iOS or Android device. I use it on my iPad. Problem: it requires Internet access. No WiFi, no chargie.

I’m due for a new phone after December 23. I’d already decided to buy an Android phone — probably the Motorola Droid 2 — so it would work with Square. I’d done extensive price calculations to see which would be better: using the phone as a hotspot (it has that capability) or getting a MiFi. The cost was about equal, but having the MiFi would give me greater flexibility in that I’d get more bandwidth for less money and the additional bandwidth cost was cheaper. Plus, as I later learned, I’d be able to continue using the Internet while I was on the phone.

MiFi

Smaller than a pack of cards, this MiFi will connect me to the Internet just about anywhere I go.

Verizon has a special deal on the MiFi 2200 right now. The device is free with a 2 year plan. I decided to go for it and that’s why I went to the mall.

I found a Verizon kiosk, picked the brains of the very knowledgable and friendly but not pushy sales guy, and signed up. I walked out with a MiFi, stowed it in the car, and went out the mall’s main entrance on foot to explore that area of the strip.

Fashion Mall

The front of the Fashion Mall from the overpass at the Wynn across the street.

I crossed over to Wynn, where I had lunch in Red 8, a Chinese restaurant. I’ve been really hungry for good Chinese food lately — there isn’t any in Arizona — and had a bunch of it in Las Vegas.

Venetian Canal

Yes, this is completely indoors. Why have a real sky when you can have a prettier fake one?

From there, I walked down the strip past the new (to me) Palazzo and into the Venetian’s indoor shopping mall. The Venetian was built in the tail end of the wacky phase that demanded rides in every hotel and, because of this, it has an indoor “canal” with gondola rides. I bought a very unsatisfactory tiramisu in a “bakery” and wandered back out onto the strip.

I got about as far as Harrah’s when I started feeling hot and tired and figured it was time to head back. So I crossed the street and walked along the strip past the Mirage and Treasure Island. They were doing work on the sidewalk there and they detoured all traffic into the casino (how convenient), but I found the walkway over the road to the mall. I wandered up to the Apple Store to see what kind of iPad cases they have — I’m actually looking for a purse-like case — and then wandered out empty-handed. Three hours after I’d started my walk, I was back in my rental car, exhausted.

Hit 3: Dinner at the Burger Bar

During my walk, I’d decided to cheer myself up from my helicopter maintenance woes by going to a show. I’d heard a lot about Chris Angel as the big up-and-coming magician. He had a show at the Luxor that was somehow connected to Circue du Soleil. I called and, as a party of one, got a third-row seat to see the 7:00 PM show.

So after taking a nap and configuring my new MiFi, I headed out to the Luxor to pick up my tickets and grab a bite to eat before the show. I wound up in the Burger Bar, which is on the overpass between Luxor and Mandalay Bay. I’ve eaten there before. It’s basically a pricey burger joint, but it’s easy and there’s aways a seat at the bar.

I wound up sitting beside a woman in her early 30s who was also alone. Only moments after I arrived, she struck up a conversation. Within minutes, we were chatting like old friends. She was from a small border town in Canada and was on exactly the same page as I was regarding politics and the role of religion in society. She was an outdoorsy person who was out of place in the zaniness of Las Vegas, but was determined to explore it. She’d read about the Burger Bar in a tour book and had asked her friends to join her there for dinner. But they’d rather shop so she’d hopped on a bus from Planet Hollywood (up the strip) and had made the trek alone.

It’s always interesting to me to see how people from other countries similar to the United States think of us. At one point, we were discussing the tax situation in the United States and she said, “I can’t believe you people want tax cuts when you have such a huge deficit and you don’t even have universal healthcare yet.”

I consider that meal a high point of my weekend. It wasn’t the food — I had the sliders and they were pretty good but nothing special — it was the conversation. It’s always great to meet someone who has the same basic ideas you have. Just when I think I must be nuts because of what everyone else is thinking and doing, I meet someone who thinks the same way I do. It confirms that I’m not nuts after all.

Strike 4: Chris Angel Believe

I’ll start by saying this: Do not waste your money on this show.

Believe

Interesting that the letters LIE should be bold in the logo. The show’s description was certainly a lie.

Chris Angel has built a show to stroke his ego and feed his narcissism. A big video screen shows photos and videos of Chris in action throughout his life at various points in the show. (Apparently, I’d come to watch TV.) His comedic sidekicks shared immature bathroom joke humor that served primarily to get cheap laughs and stretch out the show’s length to 90 minutes.

Every once in a while, Chris would do a magic trick. Most tricks were some version of the transposition illusion, where Chris and an assistant or sidekick exchange places using a teleportation illusion. I think he did at least five of these and, after the third one, I felt like saying, Okay, I get it. You can switch places with someone. Let’s move on.

He also escaped from a straight jacket while hanging upside down — a trick my cousin was doing when he was in his teens.

He apparently swallowed razor blades and string and pulled the string out with the razor blades tied to it. Teller of Penn and Teller does the same trick with sewing needles and is a lot more entertaining as he does it.

He put on a big, bulky stage coat and then proceeded to produce birds. (Gee, where did they come from?)

He cut an assistant in half in a relatively gory version of the usual trick.

He defied gravity, but in each instance, it was pretty easy to see an assistant releasing the invisible wires attached to his back. In fact, I’m not even sure if we were supposed to be impressed by that; it was pretty transparent.

There were other tricks, too, but not enough to fill 90 minutes — hence the chatty fill and stupid jokes. Every break in the action seemed to be an opportunity for Chris Angel to brag about himself or promote his TV show or products for sale in the gift shop. It was probably this aspect of the show that turned me off so much. I think that if he’d had a more likable personality and wasn’t so damn full of himself, I could be more forgiving of his performance. But to brag about how great you are and then deliver such a mediocre performance was unforgivable.

When the show ended, it did so abruptly, leaving the audience wondering if it was really over.

I cannot believe how much money I spent on this show and how absolutely ripped off I felt when it was done. I would have better spent the same amount of money feeding into slot machines. At least I would have seen something different at every spin.

Oddly enough, my passengers saw the next show that night — the 1,000th performance. They were equally disappointed. I’m really surprised that this show was so well attended. In my opinion, it sucked.

Strike 5: Stomach Problems

Despite the fact that two doctors have told me that there’s nothing seriously wrong with my stomach, I was up in the middle of the night with severe acid reflux and nausea. I had no medicine — not even Tums or Rolaids — to take. I prepared the bathroom for the expected second act where I’d lose those tasty sliders and fries, then went back to bed. Propping myself up on all the pillows so I was nearly sitting up really helped. I was even able to get back to sleep without losing my dinner.

From now on, I travel with Tums.

Hit 4: Rich to the Rescue

On the Ramp

Parked on the ramp at LAS. The 747 behind me is a private jet belonging to the owner of the Venetian.

My mechanic, Rich, arrived at LAS on time at 8:20 AM on Sunday with a remarkably small duffle bag. I picked him up at the main terminal and drove him over to the Atlantic Aviation terminal. The drove us out to the far reaches of the ramp, where they’d had me parked. Rich got right to work. Within minutes, the side panel was off and he was pulling the old pump. Once the new pump was in, we ran it to check for leaks. Then I ran up the helicopter while he slid underneath to make sure everything was okay.

By 9:30 AM, we were walking back to the terminal. He decided to try to catch an earlier flight back, so I drove him around to the main terminal and let him off. Mission accomplished.

I’ll get the bill in the mail.

Strike 6: The $8.54 Smoothie

I had 3 hours to kill before departure time. I decided to kill it at Mandalay Bay, which has a bunch of really great restaurants. It was too early for lunch, so I figured I’d pick up a smoothie, which would help keep my stomach settled. All I’d had to eat that day was a cup of green tea and half a toasted bagel with cream cheese.

There was a yogurt place on the north side of the casino that had make-your-own smoothies. You’d fill up a cup with your choice of frozen yogurt flavors and some fresh fruit, then hand it off to the girl behind the counter. She’d toss it in a blender with some 2% milk.

It wasn’t until after my mix was in the blender that I was told it would cost $8.54. Ouch. Well, at least it was tasty.

Hit 5: Lunch at the Noodle Shop

I went for Chinese food for lunch again. This time, I had congee, which is a Chinese rice gruel. It sounds gross and most American folks probably would think it is. But I like it.

Back in the 1980s, when I worked for the City of New York, my partner was Chinese, originally from Hong Kong. On payday, after picking up our checks at the our office in the Municipal Building, we’d head over to Chinatown for lunch. She’d take me to the restaurants where the Chinese people ate. I’d be the only Caucasian in the place. She’d order in Chinese and I’d eat whatever she ordered for me. I think that at first she was trying to see what I’d eat. She soon learned that I’d eat anything. Congee at Big Wong was one of our favorites; she’d order it with tripe sometimes or with little meatballs made of god-knows-what.

At the Noodle Shop in Mandalay Bay, I had congee with abalone and chicken. I’d never had abalone before and I figured it was worth a try. It was good, but not worth the extra money. I would have been just as happy with pork. But at least I know what abalone is like now.

Return Flight

I got back to the helicopter at 12:30 PM and preflighted it. I settled my bill at the Atlantic desk for fuel, parking, and “security” fee. I then went into the pilot lounge to wait for my passengers. They had WiFi there and I spent some time Tweeting and Facebooking. My passengers showed up right on time at 1:30 PM and we got a lift out to the helicopter.

West of Vegas

Bummer. They made me fly up the west side of I-15 instead of up the Strip.

On departure, I asked to fly up the Strip but was told I couldn’t. I have a feeling security concerns have made that off-limits to pilots now. (I was able to do it about two years ago for my husband and his mom.) Instead, I was allowed to fly up the west side of I-15 as two tour helicopters came down the east side. Disappointing, mostly because I couldn’t give my passengers the Strip tour I’d hoped to — and I couldn’t get the incredible pictures I’d expected to get from the helicopter’s nose cam.

Bagdad Mine

The relatively small open pit copper mine at Bagdad, AZ.

After retracing my route back to Hoover Dam, we followed the Colorado River south, past Lake Mohave, Laughlin, and Topock Gorge. At the north end of Havasu City, I turned east and beelined it for Bagdad. We flew over the mine and could see Granite Mountain just northwest of Prescott in the distance. We set down at the FBO in Prescott at 4:45 PM local time. My passengers thanked me as I walked them into the FBO. We talked about other flights. Then they left.

After fueling up and visiting the ladies room, I climbed back on board and headed back to Phoenix. I landed about 15 minutes after sunset, exhausted and glad to be back.

I’m in no hurry to go back to Las Vegas.