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.


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.


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.


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.

Know Thy Menu

Is it too much to ask for accurate answers to menu questions?


The sign out in front of Blustery’s, with the Columbia beyond it. (Pardon the quality; this is a cell phone photo.

Last night, I had dinner at Blustery’s Drive In in Vantage, WA. It’s a burger joint right off the interstate (I-90), just west of the bridge over the Columbia River (Wanapum Lake). I like the place. It has personality. And it has great burgers. I go there for the “Logger” burger, which is a burger topped with bacon, ham, cheese, and a fried egg.

As I ordered at the counter, I considered a side order with my burger. I asked about the onion rings. I like them batter dipped, not breaded. When I asked which they were, I was told they were breaded. I had sweet potato fries instead (which were excellent).

After dinner, I wanted ice cream. (Can you understand why I will never lose weight?) The girl at the counter offered hot fudge. Last time, I’d asked for it but was told they didn’t have any. I love hot fudge, so I went with it.

“Whipped cream and nuts?” she asked.

“Is the whipped cream real cream?”

“Yes,” she assured me.

“Okay, I’ll take some. But no nuts.”

I paid and waited for her to prepare the sundae I didn’t need. As I waited, an order of onion rings came out of the kitchen. Batter-dipped onion rings.

Now it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between breaded and batter dipped onion rings. These were definitely not breaded. They were batter-dipped. And they looked pretty good — not even very greasy.

Okay, so she’d made a mistake. No biggie.

I glanced at the girl making my sundae. She’d taken something out of a microwave and was pouring it into the bottom of a sundae dish. It was very runny. Hot fudge doesn’t usually get that consistency.

She added soft-serve ice cream and topped it off with more runny brown stuff. Then she disappeared into the back. When she returned, there was creamy white stuff and a maraschino cherry on top. She handed it over.

I dug into the cream. Or perhaps I should say “creme.” It wasn’t a dairy product. It tasted suspiciously like Cool Whip. Ick. I scooped it all off into a napkin.

I worked the spoon again. This time, I came up with some ice cream and chocolate syrup. The ice cream was melted; the syrup was cold. It was definitely not hot fudge. It was microwave-warmed chocolate syrup which had cooled back down after melting a good bit of the ice cream.

Don’t get me wrong — I ate it. Chocolate syrup is the next best thing to hot fudge in my book.

But is it too much to expect the people who work there to know what they’re serving me? Could the waitress possibly mistake Cool Whip and chocolate syrup for whipped cream and hot fudge?

Reminds me of the breakfast we had in a small town on the road one day. Mike asked the waitress if the blueberry pancakes are good.

“They’re great,” she assured us. “The blueberries are fresh. They just opened the can this morning.”

At Paradise Cove

A story and a few photos.

I was driving down the California coast, looking for a place to stop for breakfast — preferably with a view of the ocean — when I saw a sign for Paradise Cove. I followed the arrow down a narrow road that wound down to the ocean. There was a right turn into a trailer park, but if I went straight, I’d end up in a parking lot on the ocean. A sign warned that parking was $20, but only $3 if you got your parking ticket validated in the restaurant and stayed for less than 4 hours. Ahead of me was a funky little oceanfront restaurant with a handful of cars parked in front of it. I drove through the gate and parked.

The Paradise Cove Beach CafeAnd went inside the Paradise Cove Beach Cafe.

It was a typical seaside restaurant — the kind you can imagine filled with people in bathing suits, eating fried clams, with sand and flip-flops on their feet. (That’s my east coast seaside experience talking.) But that Saturday morning was partly cloudy and unseasonably cool for southern California. The main dining room was empty. I was escorted into a kind of sundeck room with big windows facing the ocean. Although all the window tables were full, the waiter kindly sat me at a huge table nearby, where I could enjoy the view as well as the activity going on around me.

I checked out the menu, eager for a big, hot breakfast. I didn’t plan to eat again until after my flight arrived in Phoenix later that evening. Some items on the menu interested me, but it was the eggs benedict I asked the waiter about.

“Are they good?” There’s nothing worse than bad eggs benedict when you’re expecting decent eggs benedict.

“Very good,” he assured me.

I settled down to wait for my breakfast. There was nothing much going on outside the window. Gulls flying around, a few people walking out on the obligatory but short pier. It was mostly dark and cloudy over the ocean, but the sun was breaking through here and there. I watched my fellow diners get their breakfasts delivered. Everything looked outrageously good.

When my breakfast arrived, it looked good. On the plate were two eggs benedict, a good sized portion of roasted potatoes, and some melon slices. I nibbled a potato. It was cooked to perfection. And then I tasted the eggs benedict.

I’ve had eggs benedict in a lot of places — including a lot of fancy and expensive hotel restaurants. But these eggs benedict were the best I’d ever had in my life. It may have been the fact that the eggs were cooked perfectly — whites cooked, yolks still runny. Or the fact that the english muffins beneath them were fresh and not over-toasted. But it was probably because the hollandaise sauce was light and airy and obviously freshly prepared from scratch — not some thick yellow crap from a mix.

You like eggs benedict? Go on out to the Paradise Cove Cafe in Malibu and get some.

I was just finishing up my breakfast when a man about my age came in with two elderly ladies. They got a table by the window near where I was sitting. I watched them, trying not to look obvious about it, recognizing something about them. It came to me slowly. He was the grandson taking his grandmother and her friend out to breakfast.

They reminded me so much of all the times I’d taken my grandmother out to breakfast. This may have been because the woman had the same New York accent my grandmother had. She also spoke rather loudly, had trouble hearing her grandson, and asked the waiter all kinds of questions. She was concerned about whether she’d have to pay for a refill of her “mocha” — a simple mix of coffee and hot chocolate prepared by the waiter. She praised the waiter extensively about how well he’d prepared that mocha for her. The other woman was quieter but seemed to have the same accent. The grandson was attentive but, on more than one occasion, obviously embarrassed.

I knew exactly how he felt.

Before I left, I got up to say hello to them. I discovered that the women were from the Bronx — the same area as my grandmother. The quiet woman was the grandmother’s sister. She complemented me on the way my blue earrings made my eyes look bluer. I could easily have chatted with them all day.

Up the CoastAfterwards, I went outside and took a walk on the pier. I took a photo looking up the coast (shown here) and another looking down the coast (shown below). Amazing that these two photos were taken only moments apart, isn’t it? But the weather was variable and moving quickly. A huge storm front was moving into southern California that would dump rain on the low elevations and snow on the higher ones.

Paradise Cove and places like it are part of the reason I like to travel alone. When you’re traveling with companions, every stop has to be debated and measured. No one ever wants to say, “Let’s stop here and check it out,” because no one wants to be responsible if the place turns out to be rat hole. As a result, opportunities to visit interesting places are missed. Instead, a trip is a long string of predetermined “must see” places, visited one after another with few spontaneous stops along the way.

Down the CoastThere was magic at the Paradise Cove Cafe — at least for me that morning. If I’d been with someone else — someone anxious to eat breakfast before starting the drive or satisfied with a chain restaurant for a meal — I would have missed that magic.

I also would have missed out on photo opportunities. When I’m on the road by myself, I stop more often to look at what’s around me and, if I can, take pictures. On this particular Saturday, all I had with me was my little Nikon CoolPix point-and-shoot, but I put it to good use. The weather was a mixture of thick clouds and blue sky. It was the kind of place and day that calls out to photographers. The photos I’m able to include with this blog entry will help me remember this day. (I even took a stealth photo of the grandson/grandmother/aunt outing with my Treo, although I won’t publish it here.)

Anyway, I walked back to my rental car, fired it up, and paid my $3 parking fee on the way out. It had been well worth the money.

The Wayside Inn is Open

Stop in for a hamburger in the middle of nowhere.

I’ve written about the Wayside Inn before in this blog. In my post, creatively titled “The Wayside Inn,” I go into a lot of detail about the place and a visit there by helicopter back in 2003. You might find that piece interesting reading if you enjoy long, rambling stories about my helicopter travels. (Some people do.)

The short version is that the Wayside Inn is a small trailer park with a restaurant in the desert about 5 miles south of Alamo Lake. It’s accessible from Wickenburg and the rest of the world by two routes: the 40+ mile long dirt road that starts near Date Creek off Highway 93 or the combination of paved and dirt roads starting in Wendon (on Highway 60) and stretching to Alamo Lake. There’s another road from the north and I have no idea where it starts, but I do know that when the lake is full, the road is under water.

You can get an idea of its remoteness by this Google satellite image, which also includes Wickenburg. The red X is the Wayside:

The Wayside Inn on a Satellite Image

The Wayside Inn has been a destination for pilots for quite a while. It has a landing strip, but the strip has been left to get overgrown with bushes and weeds and is not maintained. So instead, pilots just land on the dirt road in front of the place. I’ll admit that there aren’t many pilots who do this. It’s mostly the folks who fly taildraggers and aren’t afraid of landing on something that isn’t a real runway. And helicopter pilots, of course.

About a year ago, the Wayside Inn burned down. I didn’t know the details, but had noticed that the building was missing when I flew from Wickenburg to Las Vegas last November. The building was simply gone.

But a few weeks ago, I saw a flyer up in Ed’s hangar. Ed is the local aircraft mechanic and he does some of my engine work, including oil changes. The flyer announced that the Wayside had reopened. I put it back on my mental list of places to go for a quick bite to eat in the middle of nowhere.

On Sunday, October 19, I had an opportunity to check the place out. I was taking a video guy and a journalist along on my Southwest Circle Helicopter Adventure. Another video guy would be meeting us in Sedona. We had a few hours to kill before we were due to arrive at Sedona Airport. I figured that a stop a the Wayside would kill some time without taking us too far from our course.

So I flew us out there. The journalist took this photo as I made my approach to landing. I set down on the big triangular area at the crossroads, across the main road from the trailer park.

Landing at the Wayside Inn

The old building had been replaced with a double-wide manufactured building. Inside, the layout was much the same as the old building had been: bar, tables, pool tables, and a limited amount of groceries and fishing supplies for sale. All of the Polaroids of fishermen and their fish were gone. The drop ceiling panels were decorated with good-luck dollar bills signed by patrons. Before we left, we added one to the collection.

The video guy interviewed the owner of the place. Turns out, he’d bought the place right before the fire had burned it to the ground. After the interview, he made us breakfast. When it was time to leave, he rode his ATV out to the helicopter with us while his dog rode on the back and asked my journalist friend why she hadn’t eaten her bacon. (She’s a recovering vegetarian.)

We’d stopped in for just about an hour. The meal was good, the price was reasonable. The atmosphere was pure Arizona “remote.”

If you’re ever out by Alamo Lake and want to stop for a bite to eat, I hope you’ll look for the Wayside Inn. If you stop in, tell them that Maria in the red helicopter sent you.

Christmas Off-the-Grid, Part II

Photography, dinner, and more photography at the Grand Canyon.

We closed up the shed and headed out to the Grand Canyon at around 4 PM. We’d wanted to get an earlier start to do some hiking along the rim, but it had taken too long to troubleshoot and fix our water problem.

I should mention here that last year when we came to Howard Mesa for Christmas, the water pipes were broken. Mike spent the entire first day and half of the second day finding and repairing broken pipes. Since then, we’ve replaced the PVC with copper. But it seems like there’s always something to fix up here. It’s part of the place’s charm, I guess. Mike doesn’t seem to mind. And in my mind, nothing could be as bad as the mouse problem we’d had, which forced me to start every visit here with a 2-hour cleaning job.

The Grand Canyon is a 40-minute drive from our place. About 1/3 of that time is spent just driving the five miles from our place to pavement. (Not an easy task, as there was more mud and the pickup did a lot of fishtailing on certain parts of the road.) The rest is on SR 64, a two-lane road that stretches from Williams, AZ to the Grand Canyon. The speed limit on the road is 65 MPH for most of its distance, but because there’s only one lane in each direction for most of the way, it’s pretty common to get caught behind slower vehicles. They added some passing lanes clearly marked with signs that say, “Keep right except to pass,” but since everyone is more important than everyone else, no one moves over to the right. So you basically have to pass on the right.

We were heading toward the canyon at about the same time someone who had left Phoenix earlier in the day for a leisurely drive up there would be arriving, so there was a surprising number of people on the road.

Grand Canyon Wide AngleInside the park, we got a parking spot in the small lot right near El Tovar, where we’d be eating dinner with friends. The hotel is right on the Rim, so we spent some time out on the pathway there, looking into the canyon as the sun was dipping ever lower into the southwestern sky. I played around with my fisheye lens — this was the first time I’d had a chance to use it at the Canyon — and got an interesting shot that includes the snow all around on the Rim.

It was cold. There wasn’t much wind, but the breeze contributed some wind chill to the situation. I don’t own a good winter coat anymore — I’d rather avoid the cold than buy special clothing for it — so I didn’t want to spend much time outdoors.

We went into Hopi House for a short while. This used to be one of the nicer gift shops at the Canyon, a place where everything was high quality. Somewhere along the line, Xanterra (which runs the park concession) had decided to add the kind of tourist crap you can find in most other gift shops there, especially t-shirts, hats, and sweatshirts that say “Grand Canyon” on them and a lot of fake Indian-style dolls, statues, rugs, etc. The good stuff — including a wonderful selection of Native American handmade jewelry — is still in the gallery upstairs, and we made the climb to see it all.

Grand Canyon MoonriseAfterwards, we came out for another peek into the canyon and were rewarded with a view of the newly risen full moon inching into the sky over the north rim. I snapped a few photos of it, but was too cold (or lazy?) to set up my tripod and do it properly, so the shots I took with my 200mm lens aren’t as clear as they could be.

We met our friends inside the hotel. We were booked for the private dining room just to the left of the hostess desk at the restaurant entrance. We’d eaten there the previous year for Christmas Eve. It had been just six of us last year: Mike, me, our two friends, and his parents. A quiet dinner. This year there were ten of us; our friends had invited six of their friends. The rectangular table in the small room was filled to capacity.

Our waiter was excellent. Extremely professional, full of advice, attentive to most details. The food was very good, too — although not as good as I remember from our early days visiting El Tovar 20 or so years ago. (I know: things change.) Conversation was relatively interesting, too. It was a nice meal. The only thing that marred it was when it was time to pay the bill; certain members of the party didn’t chip in their fair share and Mike and I and our friends wound up making up the difference, paying about three times as much as some other members of our party. I know we drank, but we didn’t drink that much.

Christmas TreeAfter stopping for some photos inside the hotel lobby where a tall Christmas tree stretched up to the second floor, we stepped outside and walked back to the Rim. The moonlight was shining brightly down into the canyon, casting shadows that defined the rock walls. It was a beautiful scene, but one my camera couldn’t seem to capture properly. (I really need to play around a bit more with the bracketing feature.)

I’ve been at the Grand Canyon many times at night. If there’s no moon, you can look down into the canyon from the Rim and not see a single detail at all. It’s like a black abyss that could be a hundred miles deep. But add some moonlight and you get a completely different picture. This is part of what makes the Canyon such a special place. Different lighting conditions can completely change the experience.

Hopi House at NightSince I was out there with my tripod, I took a few moments to photograph Hopi House and El Tovar. Hopi House was especially festive with its [electric] luminarias.

El Tovar at NightIt was after 9:30 PM and it wasn’t very cold at all. The wind had died down and the air was crisp and dry. There wasn’t anyone around except us. That made good conditions for taking these photos. They create the illusion that the historic buildings along the Rim are private, special places. In reality, during the day, these places are mobbed with tourists and it would be nearly impossible to photograph them without including a few people in each shot.

We drove back to Howard Mesa in the full moonlight. There were few cars on the road.

As I opened the gate on our driveway, I noted that all the mud was frozen solid.

It was warm and cosy inside the camping shed and even more so under the covers in bed.