Day 11, Rohnert Park, CA:
Our final day in the Bay Area wasn’t a busy one. Beth, Debbie, and I procrastinated getting ready that morning but Elaine was coming over so we could go visit Beth’s cousin, Sarah. Sarah and her family couldn’t attend the big family dinner on Sunday night so we were going to see her. Sarah’s dad and sister were working and away at college respectively but she was available for lunch. We went to a small chain restaurant called Shari’s. It’s similar to a Perkins, Denny’s or Bob Evans. Basically a diner that serves breakfast all day but also a variety of other dishes. We got a corner booth, a trend on this trip, and talked while looking over the extensive menu. When the waitress eventually arrived I panicked and instead of trying something new I ordered the fish and chips. I’m addicted to breaded, lemon-covered fish and wedge fries. What can I say? The girls all went with something lighter.
I’ve said it before but the Bombens are a lively group. Any conversation with them could be a laugh riot. Debbie and Elaine were fighting over being Dave’s favorite aunt. Dave is Beth’s brother-in-law and apparently his affection is highly coveted. They were texting him trying to get him to choose and then Debbie tried to demonstrate voice-texting. I asked her what she would do if she needed to text the word “colon” as opposed to the punctuation colon. We decided to find out, then she accidentally sent the test to Dave. It was hilarious. Lunch itself took a very long time because the diner staff was evidently not having a great day. Despite taking our orders rather quickly, our food didn’t arrive for over an hour. It took a long time to even get our beverages. A table nearby complained their way to a free dessert but we weren’t as big of complainers. We complained plenty, of course, just not to the staff. When our food finally arrived it was really good. For dessert we ordered three slices of pie to split. Not the kind of split where everyone shares equal pieces, but the kind where the people that actually wanted pie allow the others to try their flavor. I was on the pie-ordering end with a slice of marionberry pie. The pie was perfect but I was pretty sure marionberry was a made up berry that is actually blackberry. I know now that I’m right because I looked it up. Marionberry is a type of blackberry cultivated in Oregon. It’s a marketing thing to call them something different but I love blackberries either way?
We went across the street to Target after our two hour lunch. Sarah wanted to buy some things and without a car/license this was the easiest way for her to do that. Afterwards, we dropped her off at home. Elaine mentioned that when she and Debbie normally visit Rohnert Park they stop off at nearby Graton Casino. They usually only spend half an hour gambling so Beth and I said, “Why not?!” The casino was really fancy on the inside. There were signs advertising the new hotel they were building. Looks like there’s money in the casino business, huh. Debbie sat down at a Big Bang Theory slot machine and played it on max bet for a couple of minutes. Elaine wandered off to find a good machine. Beth and I left Debbie too so I could find one. I like to pick slot machines based on three things: 1) the cheaper the better (I like penny slots), 2) they have to be fun (lots of opportunities to win a free play), and 3) they have to be visually appealing. Because of these strict standards it always takes me a while to find a machine. I eventually settled on one that was based on kittens. I was a couple dollars down when I hit some kind of bonus. This game was so cutesy that my bonus was earned by spinning four matching brown kittens and a orange one that was wild. That bonus led to me being $0.30 in the black. I quit while I was ahead because I know a victory when I see one. Debbie and Elaine lost their gambling allowance for the month and we left. The casino business is lucrative.
Our short casino trip was just long enough to stick us with rush hour traffic on the drive home. We saw a farm full of mini ponies and lots of grape farms (this was wine country after all). Beth and I continued to play a car game we have been playing for years called the ‘Xterra game’. It started as part of the alphabet game where players say words that start with each letter of the alphabet that they see along the road. They can be on billboards, buildings, or even other cars. ‘X’ is one of the most difficult letters to get, obviously, so we became very familiar with the Nissan Xterra. The game devolved into us just shouting “XTERRA” every time we saw one. Beth’s family has even started playing with us on a limited basis. We play whenever we’re in the car together and actually decided to keep track of our points on this trip. No more guessing which of us won. We’d actually know. She had managed to get a significant six point lead the previous couple days. Other than that we were neck and neck most of the trip. Luckily, I caught on fire. I went 8-2 and made up the difference in a couple hours. It was a mini-miracle.
The rest of the night was uneventful. Debbie, Beth, and I watched Storage Wars and played with the dogs. Debbie doesn’t allow dogs on the couch which Maeby didn’t understand at all. We used a flashlight to drive her crazy running in circles. Lucy tried to play along but Maeby doesn’t play well with others. When we stopped, she took matters into her own hands and tried to grab the flashlight off the table. The hardest decision we had to make the rest of the night was what to have for dinner. On our first trip to San Francisco in 2011, Jack grilled up several pounds of meat for every meal. Even breakfast. With Jack away on a golf trip, nobody wanted to cook. We wavered between pizza and Chinese food and it took us an hour to actually order. We got two small pizzas and cheesy bread. Our last night in California may have been low-key but it was relaxing. It was just we needed. End of day eleven.
Day 12, Benicia, CA to Las Vegas, NV:
Beth and I enjoyed five days and six nights in the Bay Area. We even had a healthy mix of exploration and relaxation, a rarity when I plan vacations. Beth certainly got her way to a degree. The two of us woke up and had leftover pizza for breakfast (extremely nutritious). We should have packed up the car the previous evening when we had spare time. Instead, we lost an hour off my itinerary packing the car with all our stuff. With all the souvenirs we had purchased throughout the trip it was getting more difficult to organize things. It was a game of Tetris already and we just kept adding blocks. Debbie woke up to see us off. I led off driving again because that’s my thing. I’m a morning person. Beth set up my navigation and took a nap. I don’t sleep well in cars. I have to be very tired to make it work. I couldn’t sleep on the last seven flights I took either. Perhaps it’s because I fear I’ll miss something. I have a recurring nightmare where I am on vacation and realize I haven’t taken very many pictures. The dream is in a different setting every time but the theme is always the same. The latest one was in a dream version of London. I was riding an above-ground train and couldn’t take pictures of the amazing skyline. It was terrifying.
I didn’t see a whole lot while Beth slept, nothing super interesting at least. Maeby must have been tired too because she slept in the back instead of trying to force her way in front every five minutes. There were a lot of farms and orchards along Interstate 5. California was/ is in the middle of a record drought. There were many billboards and privately owned signs declaring the need for a solution. “Water makes food”, “No water = Higher food cost” and “Dams or trains” were the primary sayings I saw repeatedly. I agree that water used for growing food is not a waste but based on some of the information I’ve read about growing almonds, those little nuts suck up a lot of agua. Almonds, it turns out, aren’t even the crop that requires the most water to grow. Broccoli is the worst offender. I dislike both but not for that reason. Further South we drove past hundreds of windmills. Finally, something to see! California may have water problems but they at least know how to take advantage of renewable energy. There were a variety; big ones, little ones, old style, new style, and even one with a big ball in the middle of the fan blades.
Beth drove for a while at some point. I got to stare out at the desert for a while. The mountains were considerably shorter and less green than those in Yellowstone. We went right through Bakersfield and I saw a weird airplane storage area in Mojave, CA. It was really far off the highway but a ton of big airplanes shining in the sun got my attention. I looked it up online. It’s called the Mojave Air and Space Port (cool name). A bunch of companies complete airplane and space vehicle test flights and research there. There’s even a special train depot for bringing in manufacturing supplies. The gas prices were still pretty expensive but Southern California really tried to jerk us around. We saw stations advertising $4-5 per gallon for regular unleaded when stations back home in Minnesota were charging $2.20-2.50. Still employing the Gas Buddy website we were able to avoid the worst prices. There was one station in a little town that was $4 when every other place around was a dollar more. Their bathroom was out of paper towels so they’re lucky the gas was so cheap.
I ended up driving the last leg of the day. I drove a lot more than Beth on this trip. Why not, though, when I can’t sleep and she can. I like to drive but it does make it difficult to take pictures. I should mention that I do not text and drive but I have been known to take a blind picture out my window. My left hand controls the steering wheel, my eyes stay forward, and my right hand casually takes pictures in rapid succession wherever needed. I get to see if any of them turned out when I get home. Some of them end up cockeyed or blurry but at least I can remember the good times I had on vacation (and avoid my anxiety dreams in real life). We picked up Interstate 15 in Barstow, CA for the second time on this trip. There was a sign that told drivers to turn off their air conditioning for the next seventeen miles or so, which I found weird. It was seventeen miles of incline topping out above 5000 feet and the sign was warning us about overheating. Because the incline was gradual it was actually pretty sneaky. You might not be able to tell you were overtaxing your car’s engine. We complied. Resistance was futile anyway. Another cool thing we saw was a solar farm just off the highway. It was off to the left as we came down a big hill. I had never seen one before except in the movie Sahara.
We could tell we were approaching Nevada when there were billboards advertising everything from cheap buffets to gentleman’s clubs every thirty feet. I also spotted the state border easily as there were actual buildings in Nevada (the casino business is lucrative). There are casinos in Primm, NV for those of you that are too impatient or too cheap to visit Las Vegas. The prices in Vegas are no joke. You might be comped a meal or beverage if you gamble enough but the casinos charge a hefty resort fee to stay. I think the State ends up getting that money as a tax but still. When I was looking for accommodations I was dismayed at some of the prices. Basic rooms look inexpensive at $40-100 but then you see the actual price after $40-80 resort fees are factored in. Any thought that we could stay in the Bellagio went out the door. Even worse were the pet fees. The cheap hotels were charging $75 per night for a single dog (with size limits of course). My research back in early August did guide me to one particular hotel chain that didn’t charge such a fee, La Quinta. I had seen their Fred Willard-narrated commercials on television but I had never stayed in one. They earned our future business by being pet friendly.
We could see downtown Las Vegas from a couple miles away. It certainly stands out, even in the daytime. I desperately had to pee (sorry if that’s too much information) and the last fifteen minutes were pretty touch and go. I contemplated stopping more than once despite being so close to our destination. Every little traffic jam and red light had me cursing while we navigated past some of the iconic hotels on the Las Vegas strip. The front of the parking lot of the La Quinta was packed forcing me to double park and bolt for the lobby (leaving Beth to find a spot). Just my luck, the hotel’s lobby bathroom was under renovation. They had dedicated one of the guest rooms in the meantime which I all but ran to.
Back in the lobby I got us checked in and rejoined Beth and Maeby at the car. We moved to the back of the huge building where there were way more spots available and went to the room. It wasn’t our room, it turned out. There were other people’s bags and stuff all over the place. The bathroom was disgusting. I called the front desk using the room phone and told them it looked like someone was still staying in this particular room. I had to go all the way back down to the lobby to get everything corrected while Beth stood in the hallway with Maeby and all our luggage. An employee had failed to do something correctly because we were given key to another guest’s room. Lucky for them, I’m not a jackass. I didn’t steal anything or rip the desk clerk a new one. I do, however, write reviews on Tripadvisor and it will be mentioned. It needs to be mentioned. I’ve never seen anything like that before.
By the time Beth and I got the dog settled and got dolled up to go out on the town, it was dark outside. That’s alright. Vegas never sleeps and it’s a more comfortable temperature at night anyway. We were half a mile from the Strip so we decided to walk. I took out $200 at a bank on the way so I’d have some gambling money (and a quantity that was a reasonable limit). We emerged on the Strip at Las Vegas Boulevard and Flamingo Road (the Northwest corner of the Bellagio Fountains). The fountain show was active but there was no time to stop right away. We were on a mission to get some dinner at Gordon Ramsay’s BurGR. We chose Chef Ramsay’s burger restaurant because it is the cheapest of his three establishments in Vegas. I love his television shows and personality, I just can’t afford his fancier restaurants (yet). Although you haven’t asked, I will now list my favorite Gordon Ramsay shows in order of how much I like them; Kitchen Nightmares, Hell’s Kitchen, Masterchef, and Hotel Hell (he’s got a few more British ones I haven’t seen). Anyway, Beth and I walked two blocks South to Planet Hollywood. The restaurant is right at the front of the casino. The line looked long but our wait was only twenty minutes.
The wait was reasonable but it was rather warm. If you’ve seen Hell’s Kitchen you may know that Gordon has a particular affinity with fire. The entire front glass wall of BurGR was aflame. It was hard to stand so close. I was sweating my ass off. We were taken to our table which was in the back corner of the dining room. Nobody puts Baby in a corner but for Gordon, I let it go. Okay, it was like our third corner table of the trip. This was our second Ramsay dining experience, the first being Bread Street Kitchen in London. Beth’s not as big a fan of his TV work as I am but she does like his food. I know he doesn’t cook it himself and he probably only sets foot in the restaurant once every other year (both because he’s got so many and because he’s busy), but each place has his stamp of approval and his touch. Our waiter brought us the menus, which we were allowed to keep as souvenirs. Gordon’s picture on the inside of the menu just says, “I’m angry at someone but also, hello, welcome to my restaurant!” Beth ordered the Southern Yardbird Burger (a chicken burger with sharp cheddar, mustard bbq sauce, pickle, and butter lettuce). I chose the Farm Burger (a duck breast burger with bacon, English sharp cheddar, and a fried egg). We also got fries and a crème brûlée-oreo shake to share. I felt a little weird ordering a non-beef burger at a burger restaurant but I figured it’s on the menu for a reason. I’m always a sucker for fried egg and bacon!
Our shake arrived right away and and it was so good it was difficult to stop eating it. While we were waiting for our food we plotted our sightseeing tour of the Vegas Strip. I knew of a couple things I wanted to see but based on our short time there it wasn’t possible to fit everything in. Neither of us are huge gamblers but we wanted to fit some of that in too. The burgers and fries arrived and everything was delicious. My duck was flavorful and moist. I could taste the difference from beef, of course, but I wasn’t disappointed with my choice. Every burger place has beef, they don’t all have options like duck. The fries were covered in truffle salt and parmesan (and served with a truffle aïoli). It’s not your traditional french fry, certainly more messy, but they were tasty. I wanted to lick the shake glass clean but decided against it because there were other people around. There were no leftovers (we didn’t want to carry leftovers around anyway).
We left BurGR content but there was so much left to do on our full stomachs. We circled the floor of Planet Hollywood and we lost $7 in my dad’s favorite penny slot machine called “Texas Tea”. Back on the Strip we headed South for a block or three and found our path blocked by Harmon Avenue. We turned back and had to cross the street to get to the Bellagio. When I think of Las Vegas, I think the Bellagio. George Clooney’s version of Ocean’s Eleven came out when I was a kid and I’ll always remember the iconic scene where they watch the fountain and reflect on their caper. There are a number of Las Vegas locations people think of first, but for me, this was it. The fountain show was ending as we crossed the street so we found a good spot and settled in to wait for the next one in fifteen minutes. It was windy that night and we didn’t know it yet, but the rest of the shows that evening were cancelled. It was an absolute bummer. I honestly contemplated waking up early to go see it the next morning. I’m still broken up about it now. Bummer.
We had no idea the shows were cancelled so we wasted 35 minutes standing there. They should put up a sign or something that warns people when it’s too windy for the fountain show. When we finally moved on, our next stop was Caesar’s Palace where we saw marble statues and classic architecture. Beth wanted to see the Volcano show in front of the Mirage but when we walked up it was clear it was dormant, for the night anyway. A quick internet search told us it only erupts twice a night now. Double bummer. At least we had the pirate show at the nearby Treasure Island. Beth’s uncle Tom recommended it. Well, apparently Tom hasn’t been to Vegas in a while because the original pirate show was replaced with a sexed-up version called Sirens of Treasure Island in 2003. That show was then cancelled completely in 2013. Triple bummer!
So we didn’t get to see any of the free, outdoor shows we planned to see. We definitely did not have time to see an indoor show, despite my interest in one day seeing Blue Man Group. That left sightseeing and gambling. I sought fortunes in Treasure Island but couldn’t find any machines I wanted to play (remember my strict criteria). The people-watching, however, was superb. The Strip and all the casinos are filled with every type of person you could imagine. The People of Walmart were well represented but also classy businessmen, sleazy businessmen,
hookers ladies of the night, heavy drinkers, performers, chain smokers, high rollers, low rollers (penny slots represent!), newlyweds, soon-to-wed bride and grooms, club promoters, and half naked people. A few of them were more than half naked and Beth made unfortunate eye contact with one when we rounded a corner back outside. We walked through the Venetian where I really liked the lobby ceiling, an amazing mural modeled on the Sistine Chapel. The entire casino, inside and out, was Italian in design including great columns and art everywhere.
Beth and I were both yawning having been in the car for ten plus hours and now having walked five miles as well. There was one more thing I wanted to do, however. I desperately wanted to play roulette. I played for the first time (not counting a casino game as a kid) on a business trip in 2013. My coworkers and I were working fifteen minutes from the Iowa border so we drove to Diamond Jo’s to celebrate a guy’s birthday. Minnesota has casinos but roulette is illegal there for some reason. We sat and played for a while and I was lucky. I made steady progress and ended up making $30. Needless to say for a penny-pincher like me, I wanted to see if I could get lucky again. I looked for open roulette tables at a couple different casinos that evening but didn’t find one with both an empty seat and a low bet minimum ($5 was the minimum at my table in Iowa). Finally, right as Beth was close to calling it a night, I told her I’d walk into the next casino and pick a table or we’d quit looking.
I had never heard of The Cromwell before but that was where we ended up. I found a group of four roulette tables and took an open chair at a $10 minimum bet wheel. Only three of them were playing but the table was occupied by 7-10 Belgian guys. Very drunk Belgian guys. I put down $50 to get started and bet $20 on the first spin ($1o on Black and $2 on five different numbers inside). Black 11 came up right away, my lucky number! Direct bets inside pay 35:1 and black/red pays 1:1. My first bet of $20 netted me a $60 profit. As a low roller, this win allowed me to play with house money, my favorite form of currency. Un-bummer!
I continued to use that betting strategy with $10 split between five numbers inside and $10 on a color outside. Black had hit five out of six times and the drunk Belgians were betting hard on Red (and jeering me doing the opposite). What they didn’t know, I guess, was that the wheel doesn’t give a hoot what just came up. There are 38 different numbers that can come up and it’s completely random. The next couple black numbers paid for my inside bets and that shut up the Belgians. No, of course it didn’t. They were loud and obnoxious. The table’s croupier had to scold them a few times for touching their chips too soon. Players are supposed to wait for all winning bets on the table to be paid before touching anything. They were bad listeners.
A middle-aged lady sat down at a vacant seat and started flirting with the Belgians. It was awkward for Beth and I but probably most awkward for the friend-zoned man that was along to watch her play. I got a very strange vibe from them as she taught him how the game works. They looked to be of similar age but she was treating him like a child. My winning ways continued. I asked Beth for a number, 13, and it hit the second time I played it. Good job Beth! Another of my numbers, 4, hit a bit later. In total, I bet on about 15 spins and three of them hit. We got very lucky and walked away with more than double my initial investment in profit (net +$115). I could have kept going but it was already early morning and we had a long day of driving ahead of us. A good gambler knows when to quit and being too tired to continue definitely helps.
We got a cab back to the hotel because winners don’t walk. The ride was $12 (including the tip) which meant I had enough winnings leftover to pay for our hotel stay and some souvenirs! In the end, we walked for a couple hours and only saw 20% of the strip at best. I can’t wait to go back to Vegas and see the rest of it. We’re coming back Blue Man Group! We were worried about Maeby being alone in the hotel room but she was perfectly fine when we returned. We left the TV on for her to have some comforting background noise. I have no idea if she barked while we were away but the hotel never called us or mentioned a complaint. The bed could have been an actual pile of bricks and we would have slept just fine. End of day twelve.