How We Were One with the West

During the mid-1980s, there was a surge of condominium time-share promotional activity in the DFW area. My wife, Nichole, and I decided to check-out a couple of these promos mainly because of the prizes and freebies they were inclined to hand out to visitors.

By making an honest effort to look just half-way interested, you could usually end up with something tangible to make it all worthwhile. But one time, the two of us won a drawing which entitled us to three nights and three days at a Las Vegas Hotel that was owned by the time-share company leading the promotional campaign. Since the travel portion of the excursion was up to us to provide, we decided to plan our vacation time around the Las Vegas trip by traveling via automobile, camping at State Parks and public campgrounds. We planned it so that we would visit Mesa Verde, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, then on to Las Vegas. We still had several vacation days after that to play around with so we left our itinerary open in order to do whatever we felt like when that time arose.

Motel 6 – Tucumcari, New Mexico

Motel 6, Tucumcari, NM

Motel 6, Tucumcari, NM

Since we hit the road directly from our offices, we only made it to Tucumcari, New Mexico, where we stayed in a Motel 6 (my first experience in one)[ref]Trivial factoid: Years later, I heard that Tom Bodett ad-libbed the “We’ll keep a light on for ya” part to fill in the remaining time gap when taping the original commercial for a Dallas advertising agency. The rest is history.[/ref].

Mesa Verde National Park – Cortez, Colorado

The next morning, we continued north towards Colorado but detoured somewhere around Las Vegas, New Mexico. We ended up spending a few hours touring Santa Fe. After seeing enough turquoise jewelry and adobe buildings, we resumed our journey as originally intended. We crossed the Colorado state line and passed through Pagosa Springs and headed west through the Durango area. By late afternoon, we checked into the campgrounds of Mesa Verde and pitched our tent. I’ll never forget how clear the sky was that evening and the unbelievable number of stars as  The Milky Way Galaxy was crystal clear. About 3:00 am, I heard some rustling just outside of our tent and grabbed a small .22 pistol from the back-pack (I don’t know if the weapon was even operational). I slowly poked my head out of the zippered “door” of our “yurt” and saw the most incredible expose’ of deer within 6 feet of me. The father with his 12-point rack was standing behind at full alert with the doe directly in front of him bent down a little and facing the opposite direction. Between us and them was a small fawn innocently and naively, grazing on the grass. It looked like the three of them were posing for a National Geographic front page photograph. After a full 30 seconds of gawking, the trio scampered off. Nikki was now awake and asked what was happening and I just told her it was okay and described to her in detail the following morning.

Natural Bridges National Monument – Utah

After Pueblo, the terrain looked like Mars, with a spinal ridge where you could actually see the tectonic plates jammed against each, other. On the Utah side of a particular tunnel, there was no life and the rock formations were eerie formations, crags, and rocks. This continued for many miles before we reached gradual greenery and some sloping hills. It started getting dark and was getting rather late, I was getting road weary from driving and took a road straight up a to a higher elevation. It was scary because, it was pitch black, the road was narrow, and both sides of the road sloped straight down and out of sight – just like a horror movie.

We finally got confused and disoriented even though we had maps and atlases. The roads were not well marked. When we stopped at a local convenience store, the lady working the counter didn’t even acknowledge our presence, very rude. Finally, a little boy that was sitting on a stool behind the counter, came over to us and gave us directions to the campsite just a mile down the road, take a left and up a hill.


Lake Powell, Utah

That night, in the Glen Canyons National Recreation Park area, it got chilly and damp. By morning, the tent had moisture inside which usually marks the end of its life-cycle. After getting our damp camping gear packed back into the warm vehicle, we ventured off to visit the Natural Bridges National monument which was an awesome assortment of spectacles including a few Indian ruins, all containing rounded dug-out areas, likely for social gatherings and/or food storage.

Lake Powell was breath-taking. We got out to take some photos on a high mesa looking out over the huge expanse of water. There many speedboats in lake (reservoir) which were visible only due to their thin, white, trailing wakes.

We then headed south out of Utah, I got a ticket when I got set-up by some local folks (Texas tags are a dead give-away), riding my bumper coming out of the mountains, and I was going the speed limit. I speed up a little to conform to these folks and got nabbed by a motorcycle policeman around a turn. I could see the tailgaters smiling and waving as they passed us (me, my wife and the officer).

North Rim – The Grand Canyon, Arizona

Colorado River - Grand Canyon

Colorado River – Grand Canyon

Finally, we were in the seemingly non-hostile state of Arizona, and we felt a sense of relief. By early afternoon we were heading down the road straight into the north rim of the Grand Canyon State Park and campground. As soon as we arrived, I had to use the facilities which were too far away, so I walked through some trees to make my own private latrine and almost fell right into the Grand Canyon itself. The view literally stole my breath and I could hear the wind whispering through the scenery. After picking our campsite, the next order of business was to shower at the community shower. We then proceeded back to our campsite to build a fire a cook some vittles. As the campground was fairly crowed but not over-crowded, we befriended a Canadian couple near us, spending their honeymoon camping around various locations of the west. We had a great time until the wee hours of the morning. The next day, a thunderstorm hit our site and a couple of people were struck by lightning. We just huddled in our tent which got really humid, until it blew over after about an hour.

Continental Hotel & Casino – Las Vegas, Nevada

We had just crossed the state line into Nevada when I noticed a sign along the Interstate that advertised the last chance to for food, gas or restrooms until reaching Las Vegas. Wife was driving and asked what I thought we should do. As I was looking at the map, I simply said “yeah, we better go on in.” As I continued to study the map, I noticed the cluster of gas stations, convenience stores and other signs of civilization rolling past my peripheral vision. I looked up and asked “what are you doing?”, she replied, “you told me to go on in!”. She thought I meant “go on in” to Las Vegas. There were no exits or places to u-turn until we reach our destination. As it was hot, we had to roll down the windows and turn-off the air conditioner to conserve every drop of gasoline. We finally enteded the city of Las Vegas from the north and fortunately there was a downhill stretch because we ended up coasting into the first gas station.

We spent most of time gambling, of course. My wife developed a technique commonly referred to as “sandbagging”, where she would tuck away a portion of her winnings periodically and then quit the game when her working stack got below a certain level. I tried that approach with a fair amount of success, but my technique was better, I hit a couple of jackpots back-to-back on “one-armed-bandits”. I also had good luck on the blackjack tables, where I applied all of my knowledge that I had attained from various gambling movies.

We ventured out to the strip to experience the big attractions like Caesar’s Palace, The Sands and a few others. I thought Caesar’s was the most impressive with it’s full wall of different sporting events from around the globe and the glass booth with cash blowing around in it for anyone winning a shot at grabbing as much of the blowing cash as they could get their hands on. We both couldn’t help but notice that within one block off of the main drag, poverty was rampant.

Anyone who has experienced Las Vegas knows about the disorientation of time and space which is no accident. The establishments intentionally leave no windows or clocks in view. Frequent visitors also know about the inexpensive food and drinks that are constantly available. We broke away one night for a show in our hotel where we shared a table with an elderly retired couple from Iowa. We had a great time and the show was quite entertaining. On our last night, I could not sleep, so I grabbed our earnings off of the dresser (about $300.00) and proceeded downstairs to “win enough to pay for the whole trip”. After a couple of hours, I returned to the room where the wife was soundly sleeping. Upon awakening the next morning, she cried “where’s the money?”. I simply said, “the maid must have grabbed it”. She knew better. Since we were now out of cash, we decided to invade our credit card accounts for a few more tries before we hit the road again.

We hadn’t planned our trip past this point, so we jointly made the decision to venture all the way to the Pacific ocean. We had to rely on our credit cards anyway and we still had several days of vacation remaining, so we headed-off in a westerly direction.

On our way out of Vegas, we passed over the Hoover Dam which was quite a view and the weather was nice and clear. Also, the actual city of Las Vegas (where the university is), just seemed like any other western large city. That summer in Dallas was a hot one, so the altitude of the mountains was a refreshing reprieve. However, from here on out, it was back to scorching heat once again. On the interstate heading out of Las Vegas, Nevada towards Los Angeles, California, we noticed a young guy in a suit carrying a briefcase thumbing for a ride. It was obvious what happened to that poor dude and a few hundred miles to the next civilized destination there that location. We felt sympathy for him, but did not serious think about picking him up.

The weather was still clear when we reached the California state line where we were inspected for fruit-fly infested contraband at the check-point. When the radio stations out of Vegas lost their strength, we were stuck for a couple of hours without any decent tunes. In the mountain ranges of California, the clouds were dark, dense are very close to the road. When we entered the San Bernardino valley, I knew we were approaching LA and flipped the radio on to see that every digital station had a strong signal. The station I landed on was “Paint It Black” by the Stones. How appropriate, I thought, as I traversed back to the 1960s and early 1970s. The visibility through the haze upon us was beginning to improve a little as I figured out that it was probably smog from the metro area. After a few more miles, the signs of civilization were springing up quickly and before long, we were obviously heading into a major urban area.

Hollywood – Los Angeles, California


The Downtowner Motel - Hollywood Blvd.

We drove all the way to the Pacific Ocean, stared at the sun sinking below the horizon, then cruised around the downtown area. I made the comment that the LA skyline wasn’t as impressive as that of “Big D”. We passed by Dodger Stadium, saw the Hollywood sign on the hill, and as it was growing rather late booked into a quaint motel on Hollywood Boulevard. There was a gated community right across the street I remember. The room was small but nice. Expensive too! It had a coffee maker built-in to the bathroom wall with coffee packets, sugar, creamers, cups, stirrers and everything! I leafed through the phone directory and tried to contact several old buddies who had moved to the area over the years, but wasn’t able to get in touch of a single one as there were so many multiple listings for each name I looked-up.

In the morning, we ventured along Ventura Boulevard and visited Malibu and surrounding areas. The coastal houses of Malibu were amazingly close to the beach and looked run-down and cheap, especially for the list value of those properties. Other properties the hills of the area seemed much nicer. We passed right by Pepperdine University at one point which was quite impressive in it’s own right. By early afternoon we hit the road again heading east this time back through the San Bernardino Expressway like we did the day before. We stopped at a diner that was exactly like the one in “Pulp Fiction”. It may have been the same one for all I know. We talked about all the smog, graffiti and general filthiness of LA and that it probably would not be too cool of a place to live.

After the meal, we head out via Interstate 10 through Palm Springs with it’s wind-mill generators dotting the hillside for miles and miles.[ref]Dallas installed three wind-powered generators in the Irving area not long after we returned from our trip.[/ref]

Past Palm Springs were some strange desert bowls of nothing but sand and joshua trees. It was thick with moto-cross riders and dune buggies. It wasn’t long before we crossed into Arizona, and the first thing I noticed were those cactus again. I made the comment that it looked like that variety of cactus could not grow anywhere else but in Arizona. It was nightfall as we approached the lights of the city of Phoenix ahead. We got into a room somewhere around Tempe and went straight to the bar/restaurant to eat and celebrate a little. We met a few local folks hanging out in there and they bought round after round of drinks for us. We finally went to the room where the wife crashed as I returned to the bar to take full advantage of the friendly locals celebration of my birthday. By morning, we had to decide whether to take the southern route through Tuscon and El Paso back, or the northern route. I suggested that we go the northern route due to the larger number of towns and populated areas along the way anticipating the car to start acting up.

Prescott, Arizona


The Arizona Desert

We set out towards Flagstaff and detoured briefly into the area of Prescott to find a spot to eat. We found an old general store that sold antiques, some probably dating back to the days of the gold prospectors. I ended-up buying a pair of cast-iron skillets (1 large and 1 small) that looked as if they had been gently used. I got twenty years of use out of them and don’t know where they are these days, but I’m fairly sure they are still “operational”. We then got back to the main road and passed through the Flagstaff area where we began our eastern leg of the return trip. Around Winslow, I remembered the words to one of my old favorites “Take It Easy”, as the sign marking our entry into the Painted Desert National Recreation area appeared. Since it was late afternoon, the coloration was incredible. In this day and age, it even inspires awe to look at it through the Google Earth application.

Painted Desert – Gallup, New Mexico

As we crossed into New Mexico, the cactus changed as I had suspected. No more were they the tall, straight variety with several arms on them, but know they were the small, disc-shaped, floral species known as the “prickley pear”. The terrain contained a great deal of sedimentary banding, giving it it’s painted effect. It is a rather large expanse of area, and by the time we passed through it, it was early evening. After Gallup, New Mexico, it seems like we were climbing into mountainous area again. It seemed like hours before we could make out the lights glowing from the next major city on the horizon. I remember a lot of winding road and very dark surroundings.

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Driving late at night through the deserts of Arizona, we could see the lights of Albuquerque on the horizon for an eternity it seemed. Finally arriving, we booked a room at a motel directly across the street from the state fairgrounds, which was still lively even at that late hour. We slept like logs and didn’t check-out of the room until the housekeepers were practically on top of us. We were road weary and anxious to get back home so we could spend the last couple of days of our vacation time to gather ourselves for the return to our places of employment.

Home again – Dallas, Texas

We approached the DFW metroplex from the northwest on highway 114 through Grapevine. Somehow, we got off of the main highway and did not follow the same route coming in that we departed by. It was all very much of a blur after our last 10 days. We noted the odometer before and after our trip and we chalked-up will over 7k miles in our coverage of the great American southwest.


Downtown Dallas at dusk

As I mentioned earlier in regards to the Los Angeles skyline, I also compared those of Phoenix, Albuquerue and Las Vegas with our own. My prior judgement stood and my wife agreed, our home city had the most awe inspiring profile, especially at the right time of the day.

When we entered our apartment, the temperature was unbearable even with our ceiling fans being left on and I noticed dirt pushed out of one of our plants in the sunroom. Then I noticed a long line of ants going to and from the potted specimen. I quickly figured out that whoever watered the plant before we left (not to mention the name of the prime suspect, but Nikki did it), used the lemonade pitcher for the job and probably didn’t rinse it thoroughly beforehand. Thus, the sugar drew the ants (just a theory, our apartment unit was on the third level, so those ants traveled quite a distant to get their sugar fix.) When I took the afflicted plant out to the trash dumpster and emptied the container into the bin, I could actually hear the buzz of the ants moving they were so dense.

Feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, I re-entered work just in time to catch the last phase of our summer-long joint application development (JAD) project, which had been almost entirely conducted in a small conference room. We worked with a Consultant from Chicago’s Hewitt & Associates, which was where my good friend George Smedinghoff had been hired right out of college. The project was moving forward, work was going great, Nikki was enjoying her job, and our relationship was at it’s highest peak. Three weeks later, tragedy struck and changed our lives forever.

Steve D.
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