Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A road trip TO Laughlin?

As noted previously, my most recent trip to Vegas included the renting of a BMW convertible.

When I spend several days in Vegas, I like to hit the road and see something interesting, typically away from the hustle and bustle of the casinos and the endless traffic. Once you leave the greater Vegas area, however, there aren't a lot of places to go.

Seeing nature's beauty is your best bet if you don't want to travel more than an hour away. It's not far to Red Rock Canyon, where you can loop through a scenic, rocky, somewhat interesting national conservation area. Further away you can visit Valley of Fire, a state park with similar qualities, which I found to be more interesting.

For a drive up, up and away from the shimmering lights of Vegas, Mt. Charleston is an option. There's not a ton to see up top, although there's a ski resort. There's a cool neighborhood where people live up there, built along a hillside near the top. Oddly, most of the houses are rather close to one another. Very strange.

During my spring visit to Vegas we visited the Primm casinos and outlet mall. I doubt the outlet mall is that much better than what you'll find in the Vegas area, although I don't know, as I rarely darken the doorstep of an outlet mall.

One of the best road trips I've taken was to Rhyolite, Nev., a very cool ghost town I'll write about some day. It's not a quick trip from Vegas, and I wouldn't call it a must-see destination, but if this sort of thing interests you and you have a day to dedicate to the trip, I would recommend it.

With a BMW convertible, it was essential to incorporate a road trip into our plans during last month's trip. My girlfriend didn't have any particular destination in mind, and she wasn't interested in the short trip to Primm for another shopping excursion at the outlet mall. I had suggested it because it would give me an excuse to visit either the Gold Strike, M or South Point casinos.

So I suggested we go to Laughlin. Yes, Laughlin.

I have been to Laughlin three times. Many years ago I was in Vegas with a friend and her parents. My friend knew that Laughlin was a casino town along the river, and in the early 2000s there were plenty of ads offering free bus rides to Laughlin, along with a free buffet lunch and a coupon book for whatever casino was sponsoring the bus.

In hindsight it seems like I wasted my time. I had a limited time to spend in Vegas, and we spent many hours of one of those days on a bus to and from Laughlin. Part of my interest in the Laughlin visit was to experience a trip through the desert, something I hadn't done before.

I never expected to return to Laughlin, but five years ago I did, thanks to a former girlfriend who inexplicably was being offered a lot of casino perks from the Harrah's folks. We ended up with two free trips to Laughlin in the span of a few months, and during both of those trips we rented a car and drove up to Vegas for one or two nights. They were great trips, and they demonstrated to me what a boring city Laughlin is.

So why go back? We needed a road trip destination and didn't want to give up an entire day. The daily high temperature was above average during our stay, and my girlfriend hadn't had the benefit of a lot of warm days at the pool during our five previous trips together. In three cases that was because we went around Halloween, or later, in the year. (And even during one of those Halloween trips we had a couple of nice days by the Orleans pool, given the time of year.)

I figured if we went to Laughlin, we could hit the road around 5 p.m. and enjoy the mostly boring desert landscape as the sun set, with the top down. Although the drive isn't very exciting, it's quick and easy once you get outside of the Vegas area, and the final miles into Laughlin are an interesting experience, as the altitude drops quite a bit as you descend toward Laughlin. There aren't any breathtaking views, but the drive is a neat experience.

We arrived in Laughlin at sunset and went to Harrah's, as I had a two-for-one buffet coupon from the American Casino Guide. We had dinner and quickly departed. The casino action wasn't too bad for a Tuesday night in May, but I wasn't there to gamble.

We drove up the road and parked at the Laughlin version of the Golden Nugget, but didn't go in. We went next door to the small, amusing Pioneer, featuring an illuminated Vegas Vic sign outside the building, much like the one in downtown Vegas.

The action inside the Pioneer was lacking, and after looking at a couple of old slot machines on display we walked along the river to the Colorado Belle. The Belle is a cool looking casino shaped like a paddle boat, and inside there's a microbrewery. We didn't have a beer there, and we didn't stay long. My girlfriend had a chance to walk along the river between the casinos, where there wasn't much to see. A water taxi did pull up to a dock, but there wasn't anything else happening on the river after dark. I bored her with stories about how cold the water is, which is ironic given how hot it gets in southern Nevada. Without much to see at any of the casinos, we headed back to Vegas in the dark of night.

When you travel between Vegas and Laughlin the north-south highway you take is Highway 95. It's a divided, four-lane highway. There are signs that suggest the highway is patrolled from above, which isn't something you see every day. I have no idea how often it is patrolled, but with the top still down as we headed back, a helicopter flew over us twice during the first 30 minutes or so of our trip back.

There are a couple of non-towns along Highway 95, and one of them is Searchlight. It's a town that once existed because of mining, or so the story goes, and today it's a geographic dot on the map where you can get stop for gas, food and gambling. Having stopped at the Terrible's in Searchlight in the past, I decided we should stop on the way back for a cheap beer.

I don't remember what I paid for a bottle of beer in the past during those trips from Laughlin five years ago, but it wasn't much. The "casino" at Terrible's is a modest room full of machines. I wasn't interested in playing video poker for a free drink, I simply wanted a cheap beer. They had a sign promoting pints of Rolling Rock on tap, for 50 cents.

Other than the crappy beer they'd sell in a 10-ounce cup for 50 cents at the Vegas Club downtown, I can't remember the last time I found a place selling a beer for 50 cents. I  haven't seen a price like that since I was in college, and that was more than a few years ago.

My girlfriend and I each had a pint, and then I decided to change it up to my go-to macro brew, Bud Light. I assumed I was ordering a bottle when I asked for one, but the bartender had it on tap, and poured me a pint. My girlfriend ordered a second Rolling Rock. I had no idea what the tap of Bud Light cost when I ordered it, but eventually we noticed a sign on the wall behind us: $1 for a pint, $3 for a pitcher.

The total for our four tap beers: $2.50. We left $5 for our tab when we departed.

I have no interest in returning to Laughlin, unless somehow I end up with another free trip, but it was the perfect destination for a September evening drive in a BMW convertible.

When I was in Vegas in May I would have bet against my ever returning to Searchlight. While I have no reason to expect I'll ever return, life is funny. I wouldn't bet against it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Everybody loves a parade?

An hour ago I read the news that the 2015 Las Vegas Halloween parade is not happening.

I've had mixed feelings about the Halloween parade for years, but I'm sorry to read it's not happening in 2015, even if I won't be there.

This year was to be the sixth annual parade. A vague Facebook post suggests that the lack of a supporter/producer has resulted in the scuttling of this year's parade, but an organizer plans to carry on in 2016, bigger and better than ever.

One of the reasons cited as a challenge in 2015 is that the parade would be on a Saturday, since it has always been held on Halloween night. Based on past parades, this year's parade and post-parade festivities were estimated to draw more than 100,000 people. I'm not sure how that figure is calculated, and it seems a bit high to me, but the parade does draw additional pedestrian traffic to the Fremont East area. More than other events that happen east of the downtown canopy? I can't say.

This much I know, I attended the second annual parade in 2011. Back then the parade started south of Fremont Street, worked its way north, crossed Fremont and ended. There was some sort of disco dance party in a lot north of Fremont, but I didn't wander over to it.

There were hundreds of people gathered to participate in the parade that Monday evening. The parade doubled as a costume contest, featuring several categories. Parade participants weren't obligated to enter the contest in order to join the march north to Fremont. I was among those who made the trek, and I didn't enter the contest.

The parade featured a variety of vehicles with a Halloween theme, but overall it wasn't a massive parade. It had the chance to be a great spectacle, but the parade's execution was lacking.

That's because there was a judging stage with "celebrity" judges a block or two before Fremont, as well as bleacher seating for spectators. Participants in each category were judged at this point in the parade, and it created an uneven flow to the parade. For participants like me, who just wanted to make the stroll toward downtown while in costume for the hundreds gathered along the street, the judging station didn't play well. For those who wanted to see the parade participants in action at Fremont Street, it made for a rather unspectacular parade, as best I could tell.

I returned to Vegas for Halloween in 2012 and 2013, but I didn't seek out the parade. Since my 2011 experience, the parade has changed its route, moving its starting point further east on Fremont and working its way back toward the canopy. At the conclusion of the parade a portion of Fremont Street is closed for a street party of sorts. I wandered through the area in 2013, and while it wasn't anything magical, it was a fun way to wander about with costumed characters spending their Halloween in Sin City.

Having a parade on Halloween night is a curious choice. It's not likely to draw families, as children are more likely to want to go trick-or-treating, I would imagine. Since it's a Sin City parade, and at night, it attracts a bit of an element that's not exactly family oriented, so perhaps it's a good thing that it's held on Halloween night and not the last Saturday afternoon of the month.

Since it's always on Halloween, it's on a night that will perpetually draw a larger-than-average crowd to popular gathering places, such as the Fremont Street corridors. I was a bit overwhelmed by my last Halloween under the canopy in 2013. That was a Thursday night, and navigating through the crowd was harder than I had ever experienced.

While I'm skeptical of how big the parade's draw is, and I'm not in a hurry to see or experience the parade again, I hope that the grassroots effort to build a downtown Halloween event will continue, despite this year's hiccup. I have long enjoyed the creativity and fun that the Halloween season brings, and even when Halloween is on a Saturday night here in Minnesota, you won't find any gathering here that rivals Halloween night in Vegas. The parade certainly added to that, and like most things I suspect it was getting better with age. I'll be in Vegas for Halloween 2016, I hope my theory will be proven correct.