Travel Time with Roger Tweed: Las Vegas and Yosemite – Part I

Travel Time with Roger Tweed

Subject: Las Vegas and Yosemite – Part I

In mid-September  I flew to Las Vegas on the first leg of a trip that would take me to Yosemite National Park for the first time. The group that had hiked through Glacier National Park last September (my friends Roch and Bob would join me) were going to meet at the Sacramento airport and drive to the home of Half Dome, Big Red, El Capitan, and the Grizzly Giant.  But first I had some free nights at the Orleans Hotel-Casino to use before they expired.  This is Part I of a two-part series covering the trip.  Part I deals with the time I spent in Las Vegas, Zion National Park, Kanab, UT, Sacramento and the drive to Yosemite.  Part II will chronicle our stay at Yosemite and the trip back to Sacramento.

I flew Air Tran out of Reagan National Airport and the flights (changed planes in Milwaukee) were uneventful. I had spent 5 hours waiting out a flight delay in Milwaukee’s Air Tran concourse in mid-July, and the number of flights coming and going then was so much greater than the flight volume in mid-September. My three hour layover this day was interrupted by very few flight announcements. On the flight from Milwaukee there was one gentleman wearing a sleeveless “Wisconsin Badgers” muscle shirt. He had arms like Popeye! I would be seeing many more such individuals in Las Vegas.

I arrived at McCarran Airport about 8 pm and took the shuttle to the rental car facility. Budget had accepted my Priceline bid for an economy car at $26 per day. I probably should have made a lower bid, but this was well below the pricing I could find on line. The counter person made a big deal out of trying to find me an economy car even though they were “out of them” (this happens frequently in Las Vegas) but after 15 minutes he gave me the keys to a Ford Fusion (two classes above Economy) and I was off to Orleans. 

Orleans Hotel-Casino Marquee

Orleans is located west of the Strip on Tropicana. I had first visited there last December when I saw the University of Kansas men’s basketball team play two games in the arena in the Orleans complex. I had done relatively well playing craps at their tables (Orleans always has at least two $5 minimum bet craps tables open) and had joined their players club. My new membership must have been the reason for the two comped nights. As I pulled into the parking lot, I saw that the marquee said that a “Weider’s Mr. Olympia 2011” event was being held at Orleans. I would see a lot of men whose chests arrived about 30 seconds before the rest of their bodies over the next few days. I was a bit surprised to see that these body builder men were almost always accompanied by body builder women. One Note: The body building types I saw shooting craps were not good shooters.

My room was very nice. It was on the 17th floor, with a view of Tropicana Blvd. and points south. Two queen beds, a sitting area, and bath separated from the sitting area by a sliding door. The cable didn’t offer the best viewing selections (you are supposed to be gambling, not watching television), but it did have three Music Choice channels. I found myself watching the Rock ‘n Roll channel while waiting to go visit the tables (I try not to play craps before 10 on weeknights) and after returning from the tables as I mentally reviewed my play. Since I was planning to drive to Utah early the next morning, my play was going to be short that night. I drove over to Excalibur on the Strip, where I have check writing privileges, to take out a marker for my bankroll. I first played craps at Excalibur over 20 years ago and know some of the employees there. But I didn’t like the play at the tables there that night, so I drove back to Orleans. There I found a table that seemed to be playing decently and bought in. Things started off poorly and didn’t improve enough to produce a win for me. Even worse, by my count I should have lost $57 when I cashed out, but instead the box man told me that I was down $95. I am sometimes off by a few dollars in my count, but I’ve never been off by that much. But the time to have caught any discrepancies was when the payoffs were being made, not after the fact. I could only swallow hard, take the chips to the cashier, and review the nights play.  I hadn’t made any mistakes in my bets, so I couldn’t be mad at myself for the dice not going my way.  But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that my count wasn’t off and that some of my winning bets had been paid incorrectly.  But not catching the incorrect payouts was my fault plain and simple.

On Thursday morning I got out of town a bit before 9 am and drove to Springdale, UT, the west entrance of Zion National Park.  I visit Zion almost every year in December, but this time I was going to drive through the park on my way to Kanab, UT to visit the Best Friends Animal Society’s sanctuary in Angel Canyon.  My first order of business was lunch at Oscar’s just before entering the park.  Six years ago, my friends the Bradley’s and I visited Zion the week after Thanksgiving, and one night we were looking for a place to eat and found that seemingly every local restaurant had closed for the season.  When I called Oscar’s, Oscar himself told me that he had already closed for the night (but he doesn’t close down the restaurant over the winter), but that if we came by he’d fix something for us. With that I vowed that whenever my travels took me near Zion, I’d stop in at Oscar’s for a meal or at least to say hello.  Oscar and I talked college basketball (I was wearing one of my Kansas Jayhawks tee shirts that day) and favorite Zion hikes while I waited for my pork chops with green chilies, which were excellent.

After lunch I walked over the foot bridge to enter the park and showed my Annual Pass for admission.  Being an off-season visitor, I had never seen the parking lots so full! I had about 40 minutes before it was time to drive to Kanab to make my 2:30 tour (Utah time is 1 hour ahead of Nevada time) at Best Friends, so I chose to hike along the P’Arus Trail which is paved and runs from the Visitor Center to the Zion Lodge. I walked 20 minutes into the park through campgrounds and past an amphitheater I had never stopped to notice these many years. Then it was back to my car to take Utah Route 9 (the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway) east through the park to where it ends at US 89 north of Kanab. Climbing up out of the canyon, traffic was stopped outside the Zion tunnels. With traffic so heavy during the busy season, vehicles are only allowed to travel through the tunnels in one direction at a time. In December this is not the case. After a 13 minute wait east bound traffic was allowed through the tunnels, and I made my way to US 89 and then south about 11 miles to Angel Canyon and Best Friends. I arrived at the Welcome Center a little after 2 pm, checked in, and strolled the grounds and the gift shop before the video about Best Friends was shown for our tour group of five people. The tour is 90 minutes and is free.  You are driven in a van to Dogtown (featured in a National Geographic Channel series a few years ago), Dogtown Heights, Cat World, Horse Haven, the Clinic, and several other sections of the sanctuary while the driver describes each venue. The group gets to tour one building in Cat World and one in Dogtown Heights to meet the animals. Best Friends is a “no kill” sanctuary, probably the largest in the world. It was started in the 1970s by a group of friends in Prescott, AZ who were determined that abandoned or injured domestic animals should not be killed and should be rehabilitated and found caring homes. Although the group was largely successful in finding homes for the animals they were taking in, there were always a few that ended up living with the members while new homes were being found. Then in the 1980s one of the members saw Angel Canyon and felt it would be the perfect place for the animals they could not place or that needed medical attention. 3,000 acres were purchased and the members set about getting electricity and water run into the canyon. Eventually, Best Friends came to own 3,700 acres, and leases another 30,000 adjoining acres from the Bureau of Land Management. The sanctuary currently houses 1,700 animals. Best Friends operates solely on donations and receives no government assistance of any kind. Prior to its purchase by Best Friends, Angel Canyon was known as the “Kanab Movie Ranch” and, as with many areas around Kanab, had been used as a location for motion pictures and television shows.  The original “Planet of the Apes”, “McKenna’s Gold”, “The Apple Dumpling Gang”, “The Outlaw Josie Wales” and “One Little Indian” were filmed in Angel Canyon. A barn built for “One Little Indian” (and I think also used in “Outlaw Josie Wales”) remained on site and is now used as part of Horse Haven. In addition, the rock where the Lone Ranger rears up his horse Silver in the opening of the 1950s TV show “The Lone Ranger” is atop a rock face just behind the “One Little Indian” barn.

Best friends sign

Best Friends has almost 500 employees working at Angel Canyon and also makes use of the services of approximately 9,000 volunteers who come to be trained and then assist with the animals throughout the year. It is an amazing place, and the tour barely scratches the surface. I got the feeling early on during my visit that volunteering is the best way to get the full Best Friends experience.  I’m going to have to include this in my plans for 2012.

Heading back to Las Vegas through Zion, I had enough time to hike to my favorite place in the park, the Upper Emerald Pool. This 1.2 mile hike starts on the bank of the Virgin River across from Zion Lodge. Redford and Newman rode horses through this stretch of the river in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. Along the trail you walk behind the twin waterfalls from the Middle Emerald Pool, and then behind Middle Emerald Pool you hike up a fairly steep trail to the Upper Emerald Pool. These pools and waterfalls are created by run off and seepage out of the porous sandstone walls. The last time I hiked to the Upper Emerald Pool was in December, and a six inch snow fall had covered the trail and most of the pools. With temperatures having been in the 90s earlier in the day, there was no chance of snow getting in the way this time. But I did find that the extremely wet springs of the past two years combined with this past winter’s very high snow fall had altered the pools. The middle pool suffered a rock slide earlier this year which has re-routed the trail and divided that pool. And the upper pool is no longer the serene and very green pool it had been a few years ago. More boulders and rock debris now occupy the pool area. It has not changed for the better. It took me 24 minutes to hike the 1.2 miles to the upper pool, and slightly less time to hike back down to the Virgin River. There were some mule deer feeding on the grounds of the lodge as I waited for the shuttle to take me back to Route 9 and my car, and then it was back to Las Vegas.

The trip back to Las Vegas was uneventful, and I remembered to exit on Craig Road north of downtown Las Vegas to fill up the car (same price as I had seen outside St. George, UT at exit #4 on I-15, and the lowest I saw on the trip). The Fusion had gotten 34 mpg over the 400 miles I had put on it to that point. Back at Orleans I cleaned up and changed clothes and waited until 10 before heading over to Excalibur. Richard, one of the pit bosses, recognized me and came out from behind the velvet ropes to greet me as I bought into a craps table. The table was choppy, never really going in one direction or the other after I bought in. But I watched the dealers and my payouts closely and saw that the payouts looked right to me. I had been down, and was coming back but after an hour the table went cold. By my count I was down $91, and that was what the box man said as well. So, I tipped the dealers $9 in small chips and left down $100 for the night and now $195 for the trip. Weeknights are not all that good for craps players, but I knew that I would have two weekend nights to try and get back into the win column.

On Friday I slept late and puttered around. It was in the mid 90s in Las Vegas, so there was nothing driving me to go anywhere. I ended up choosing between the Pinball Hall of Fame on Tropicana east of the Strip or going to the Clark County Library on Flamingo. Since I wanted to read a newspaper and write a card about my visit to Best Friends, I decided on the library. Libraries now days print out whole newspapers from the internet, so you can read today’s paper today even if you are thousands of miles away. I read more of the Washington Post that Friday than I have in many years. I also read the September issue of The Atlantic Monthly with its scathing article about college athletics. For many years I have thought that big time college athletics were a cesspool, and this article did nothing to change my mind. But that doesn’t stop me from watching college basketball.

Friday night I was back at Excalibur, and this time I found a table that seemed to be going my way. I started off winning and this lasted much of the hour or so that I played. Members of a bachelor party showed up, and everybody was having a good time applauding some very decent rolls, trading high fives and tens whenever 6s or 8s (the numbers I bet on) came up. But the 6s and 8s became more and more scarce, and the bachelor party started thinning out. Seeing that the table had changed, and I was down a bit, I went to a “play until you lose money” strategy and the next two shooters got me to where by my count I was up $5. Five dollars isn’t much, but it would be my first win of the week so I decided to take it. I was now down $190.

On Saturday I was scheduled to fly from Las Vegas to Sacramento at 7 pm. I checked out of my room, filled the car up with gas, and went to Excalibur, which is very close to McCarran. I watched football and baseball games on the screens at the sports book and periodically checked the craps tables to see if they looked promising. I wanted to leave for the airport no later than 5:30, and in the early afternoon the craps tables were not to my liking. But at about 3 pm I started watching a table and the shooter held the dice for a long time. He wasn’t betting properly and after he had finally rolled a 7 to end his roll he became discouraged that he hadn’t won any money and left. He had actually had a good roll, which included four sixes and eights. The next shooter would have an even better roll, and after he rolled his first six and then an eight, I bought in. Twenty minutes later he was still rolling, and I was up $54. After he finally sevened out, the next shooter did a fairly good job himself. One hour since buying in, I was up $125 by my count, and was back to playing until I lost. Next up was a player at the far end of the table from me who I had told myself I wasn’t going to bet on. But his come out roll was an eight, so I decided to put $12 on the six and $12 on the eight. His next roll was a seven, and my winnings were now down to $101. My count was once again correct, and I cashed out with two straight wins, and ended down only $89 for my four nights play. My lessons learned from these sessions are to use lower bets when playing on weeknights and higher bets when playing on the weekend, watch the payouts very closely, and if I decide not to bet on a shooter I should stick to my decision.  I paid off my marker (including a check for my losses) and since I had some time to spare I walked around the casino for 20 minutes (approximately 1 mile).

West Portal of Zion National Park. From left: West Tower, Towers of the Virgin including Altar of Sacrifice (red streaks) and The Sentinel

At McCarran I returned the rental car and entered the Southwest terminal. As I walked through the doors my cell phone rang. The number had a 303 area code, so I thought it was Bob. But it was his daughter calling to let me know that he was in the hospital and his going to Yosemite was now off the table. Of course my only concern was for his health (the situation was minor, and he was out of the hospital by Sunday). But Bob had made our reservation for Housekeeping Camp in Yosemite Valley and we would need to know how to claim it. His daughter was able to find the confirmation number and also told me that she would contact the concessionaire and put the reservation in my name. And with that, I was on my way to Sacramento.

I arrived at the Sacramento airport at about 9 pm, and it appeared that the Arrivals area of Terminal A was closing for the night.  Sacramento’s airport appears to be a laid back operation, and rental car shuttles don’t come very often on Saturday evenings. I get the feeling that Sacramento is not a major destination.  Perhaps this explains how my return flight from Sacramento to DC was only going to cost $120, and why a week’s rental of a standard car (Chevy Impala, Dodge Charger) was only going to cost $190. A rental car shuttle eventually showed up, and off we went to the combined rental car facility.

At the Dollar Rent A Car counter, I was informed that they were out of standard cars, and so I’d be getting a “premium” car, the next step up. I had the choice between a Jeep Patriot (w/o 4WD) or a Crown Victoria or Grand Marquis. Of course I should have taken the Jeep, but the last time I rented a Jeep Patriot I had a flat tire 20 miles from nowhere, and this clouded my thinking. So, I took the Grand Marquis. Slipping into the front seat, I was taken back to my 1968 Ford Galaxie. Although these full sized cars have been updated somewhat, from a convenience and functional level it was like going back to 1987. The seats were flat and uncomfortable, the instruments and levers seemed haphazardly placed, and there were no usable storage bins or cup holders. The advantage the Mercury had over the Jeep was its very large trunk which completely concealed its contents. The Mercury did have a power outlet, so I plugged in my GPS and headed for the LaQuinta in West Sacramento on Jibboom Street. The hotel is six miles from the airport (roughly where the American and Sacramento Rivers meet) and directly off of I-5, so it was easy to find. My room was bigger than I expected, and I decided to get some sleep and get up early the next morning to take in the free breakfast before checking out and picking up Roch at the airport around 12:30 pm.

Breakfast was the standard waffle machines (2) along with cereal and milk, toast choices and some fruit. There was also a juice machine. Nothing to get excited about, but it was free and worth about that. I finished re-packing, wrote a post card and then checked out before noon. I noticed that I had been charged a rate much higher than the one I had booked on line ($37.05 for the night), so I had to go back and get that fixed. This was important because I had booked rooms at this rate for Roch and myself for the following Friday night and needed to make sure it was valid. With that straightened out I headed back up I-5 to the airport, passing the ARCO Arena along the way. If there is a 2011/12 NBA season, this will still be the home of the Sacramento Kings. I also noticed that gas at the ARCO station at the airport was cheaper than at the stations near the LaQuinta, so I knew where I’d be filling up before turning in the car. I parked in the airport’s waiting area and awaited Roch’s call. His plane was on the ground a few minutes early, so at 12:40 we were heading south for Yosemite.

It is 180 miles from Sacramento to the Big Oak Flat Road entrance of Yosemite National Park, traveling over I-5, I-80 Business/U.S. 50, CA 99, and then CA 120. As you get nearer the park, CA 120 begins climbing up and down bigger and bigger hills reaching elevations over 5,000 feet. Once in the park, to get to Yosemite Valley you stay on Big Oak Flat Road for 24 miles until it ends at CA 140.  Here you turn left onto El Portal Road, which eventually becomes Southside Drive. Heading south toward Yosemite Valley we saw a large area to the right (west) that had burned recently and later learned that this was the location of the Big Meadow Fire of 2009 where a prescribed burn that was supposed to clear 90 acres had ended up getting out of control and consuming 2,700 acres. The Valley floor is at 4,000 feet. In the Valley we saw Bridalveil Falls (Pohono, pronounced poo hoo noo in Ahwahnee) and El Capitan (Too Tok A Nula) as we drove along Southside Drive and eventually pulled into Housekeeping Camp.

At registration we found that the reservation had been put in my name.  We signed up to rent bedrolls (2 pillows, 2 pillow cases, two sheets and two blankets) for $2.50 apiece per night, and I rented a chair for $1 per night. Then we went across the parking lot to the Warehouse to claim our rented items. The chair was a recycled composite chair (not a folding chair), but the Mercury’s trunk was able to swallow it whole. The parking area at Housekeeping Camp is the location for the camp store, registration, warehouse, ice machines, laundromat, and shower facility. Campers get a dated pass that allows free access to the showers (along with a towel) and access to the pool at Camp Curry a little over a mile away. After stowing our warehouse items in the car, we made our way to unit A 250, which would be our home for the next five nights.

Oscar’s Restaurant, Springdale, UT

The units at Housekeeping Camp consist of three cinder block/concrete walls with a canvass top and curtain over the entrance. The floor is a concrete slab that extends to an entry area (enclosed by wood or tree limb walls which do not reach the extension of the canvass top) with a round table with three benches anchored in the concrete. The interior of the unit has one double bed, twin bunk beds, an electric outlet and light, a mirror and some shelf units. There is a metal bar slightly taller than the bunk beds that I used as a hand hold when getting into the top bunk. The entry area has a metal lined shelf for food preparation, and a light and duplex electric outlet in addition to the table and benches. Each unit has its own fire pit off to one side. Our unit was along the Merced River in the far northwest corner of the camp. As you faced the river, to your left was a view of Upper Yosemite Falls and to your right was a view of Half Dome (Tis Sa Ack) through the trees. We were directly across the Merced from Ahwahnee Meadows and the granite formation known as Royal Arches with Washington Column at its eastern end. We could also see where Royal Arches Cascade would be, but it was now dry. I never grew tired of simply gazing at these amazing granite displays or just watching the white ribbons of water plunge down the upper falls. After making our beds and getting settled, we drove to Camp Curry to get dinner. The Camp Curry dining areas close fairly early (8 pm for the buffet, 9 pm for the Pizza Deck) this time of year. Since neither of us had eaten since morning, and Roch and I both wanted salad, we chose the buffet and were not disappointed. For $17.50 you could have as much as you wanted of a salad bar, 5 or 6 entrees including fried chicken, roast pork, and pasta, create your own taco station, and cake or pudding selections for dessert.

When we got back to Housekeeping Camp we noticed that most fire pits were in use and the air was smoky. There was a fair amount of activity in camp well after dark, and we wondered why there were so many school-aged children among the campers since Labor Day was well behind us and tomorrow was a school day. But quiet hours (10 pm – 6 am) were observed, and we went to sleep a little after 10. Sunday night the temperatures were in the low 50s, quite a contrast to the daytime temperature in the upper 80s. With the right combination of clothes and using all the bedding, sleep was generally comfortable. Night time temperatures would gradually increase as the week went on, as did the daytime temperatures in the valley. Our rest room unit (Unit A) was fairly close so nighttime visits were not much of an adventure. No paper towels and no air driers either.

On Monday we would begin hiking and exploring Yosemite, and that will be covered in Part II next month.