Monday, September 29, 2014

Riding the Rails -- Return to Vegas

The next leg of the vacation led to Las Vegas for two nights at the Tropicana Hotel.

Hoover Dam
On the way to Sin City, we drove by Hoover Dam, that marvel of construction from the 1930s. Because of security concerns, buses and trucks aren't allowed near the dam. So we got a view from our windows. It's still impressive from a distance.

I was in Vegas last October, and I must say, nothing much has changed along the main strip. Some of the shows that were playing on the first visit were still drawing crowds nearly a year later. 

There are still the folks dressed in various stages of clothing and costumes walking the streets, street musicians, and others handing out leaflets for special "adult" shows.

Our Vegas guide took us to the Bellagio and Venetian hotels to check out the lavish surroundings to lure guests, especially those who are high rollers.
Bellagio's chocolate machine

The Bellagio has the world's largest chocolate fountain while the Venetian has a canal with several gondolas winding through an expensive shopping mall.
The Fremont Street Experience
On our last trip we weren't able to go to the Fremont Street Experience, which is the revitalized old Vegas. So stopping there was a real treat because it's so different from the Vegas Strip -- a little more hip and affordable.
The Viva Vision Light Show

 One of the attractions is the Viva Vision Light Show that fills the roof six times a night. We were entertained by eight pounding  minutes of music by Heart synchronized to the throbbing, dazzling lights.

There are three sound stages with some outstanding musicians performing different genres. You'll also find a ziplines stretching across the top of the facility.

This will probably be my last trip to Vegas (I said that last year), but I think it's a city most people should experience at least one time for its sheer razzle dazzle to the senses.

Until the next time...

(Note: the chocolate machine and light show images should be vertical but blog site won't allow me to rotate them).

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Riding the Rails -- Discovering Some Kicks on Route 66

There are always side trips one can make while on vacation. One we made on the rail vacation out west was to Seligman, Ariz., on the way to Las Vegas.

The Rusty Bolt
I had never heard of Seligman. I doubt if anyone on the tour bus was aware of the strip of shops, restaurants and motels off Interstate 40 -- located on Route 66, the "Mother Road of America."

Return to the 50's gift shop
Route 66 used to be a much-traveled highway, stretching from Chicago to Los Angeles. But the development of the interstate highway system took a large amount of traffic off the road. 

A Route 66 sign in gift shop
Brothers Angel and Juan Delgadillo were determined to keep their town  of nearly 500 residents alive and perhaps to thrive. Now Seligman is a step back in time, harkening back to heyday of Route 66 of the 1940s and '50s. 

Delgadillo's Snow Cap Drive-In
Angel founded the Route 66 Association of Arizona to help other towns offset the effects of the superhighways. By the way, you can meet the 87-year-old Angel -- the "Guardian Angel of Route 66" -- at his one-chair barbershop. Juan, who owned Delgadillo's Snow Cap Drive-In, died in 2004 at age 88.

Angel & Vilma's Gift Shop
There were a lot of people visiting the various shops and restaurants during our mid-morning stop. Tour buses, recreation vehicles, and cars were parked along the road. 

Roadkill Cafe
The Roadkill Cafe -- "You kill it, we grill it" -- is a popular place. Some folks got off the bus to purchase T-shirts in the gift shop (there must be a gift shop in every business).
Roadkill Cafe T-shirt

You can't miss Seligman if you're rolling the highway because there are Route 66 signs everywhere. So if you want to step back in time, this is a side trip to make if you're on the road to Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, or even Chicago to Los Angeles. 

Until the next time...

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Riding the Rails -- Reaching Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon is an awesome and inspiring place that stays with you forever. 

One of the seven natural wonders of the world, it is 277 miles long, 18 miles at its widest point and 6,000 feet at its deepest point. When you gaze into this gigantic opening in the earth, you see the layers upon layers of rock that were carved by Colorado River and other natural forces over millions of years.

© Michael Embry
The deep splendor of Grand Canyon
Designated a national park in 1919, Grand Canyon covers more than 1.2 million acres. About 5 million people visit the canyon each year to marvel at the magnificent formations.

Although I traveled to the park in 1985, I told my wife Mary it was a place I wanted her to experience as well. We had planned to go there last October, during our vacation to Las Vegas, but the government shutdown prevented that from happening.
© Michael Embry
The Watchtower on the south rim 

Our first stop on the tour was the Watchtower, designed by Mary Colter and opened in 1933 as a gift shop and rest area on the south rim. It provided some breathtaking views.
© Michael Embry
Grand Canyon Lodge

From there, we traveled to Grand Canyon Village, which has hiking trails, gift shop, restaurant,  and more places to see the park. I know some in our group wanted to take a mule  tour to the bottom, but there wasn't enough time. 

Several years ago I wanted to hike to the bottom and back up, but that was when I was a younger man, and in much better physical condition than I am today. Maybe in the future it'll return to my list of things to do before I die (I'm just afraid it would kill me at this point!). 

© Michael Embry
The Hopi House at Grand Canyon Village
Needless to say, Grand Canyon National Park merits more than several hours to appreciate it and soak in all the grandeur. 

One of the things I thought was humorous came while we were headed back to Flagstaff. There was a gorgeous rainbow spanning the southern sky, and a lot of folks with cameras started taking photos. We had just left one of the most awe-inspiring places on Earth, and couldn't resist snapping a few shots of something we see all the time.
© Michael Embry
Perhaps Grand Canyon inspired us to to appreciate all of nature's beauty.

Until the next time...

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Riding the Rails -- Heading to Grand Canyon

One of the first things you notice while cruising through the countryside on a train are the the changes in the landscape. 

I'm from the Bluegrass region of Kentucky, an area of gently rolling hills and pastures famously known throughout the world for its lush horse farms. 

Dry landscape
Riding the rails through parts of Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas, you see miles and miles of corn and wheat fields. And then you cross into the desert area of New Mexico and Arizona, with little vegetation and a rugged terrain. Mesas and buttes are more prominent the farther west you travel.

Rugged landscape
Sadly, along the way you also see a few eyesores such as rusted and abandoned vehicles and machinery, splashy graffiti on fences and the backside of buildings, dilapidated structures, as well as various degrees of poverty some people must endure to survive. These are depressing breaks among nature's splendor.

Cameron Trading Post
One of the first places we visited on the way, by bus to Grand Canyon from Flagstaff, Ariz., was Cameron Trading Post, established more than a century ago in the Navajo territory of Arizona as a place to barter and purchase items.

Monument in front of bridge
Cameron Trading Post is a popular stop along the way to Grand Canyon for tourists (and tour buses) to purchase Native American crafts, jewelry and souvenirs, dine at its restaurant, stay in its motel, or simply to get out and stretch their legs (one thing we did on a regular basis was stop every two hours or so). 

Then we ventured on to  Grand Canyon National Park, one of the most awesome places on the planet. But that's for the next post.

Until the next time...

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Riding the Rails -- The Journey Begins in Chicago

Chicago is one of my favorite cities in America.

There's so much to do in this midwestern megalopolis of nearly 10 million people, from museums to theatre to concerts to art galleries to sightseeing to professional sports and more.

© Michael Embry
Union Station

Before departing on our "America's Beautiful West" rail vacation at Union Station, my wife Mary and I spent a couple of hours walking in the downtown area.

I first got interested in Chicago in the 1960s, along with many other teenagers, listening to clear-channel WLS-AM (890 on the dial) radio. DJs such as Dick Biondi, Art Roberts, and Larry Lujack played the latest hits of The Beatles, The Buckinghams, The Dave Clark Five, The Rolling Stones, The Animals and other popular bands. 

But I digress.

© Michael Embry
Willis Tower
Only a block or so away from Union Station is 110-story Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower), one of the tallest buildings in the world at 1,451 feet, located at Jackson Building and Wacker Drive.

© Michael Embry
Chicago Board of Trade
A few more blocks down Jackson Boulevard is the Chicago Board of Trade building, another impressive structure in the cityscape. 

© Michael Embry
Chicago River 
The Chicago River traverses the heart of town, bringing a tranquility to offset the urban rush of people hurrying to and from various destinations on the busy streets. And not far away, on the east side, is the beautiful Lake Michigan that offers a variety of activities and events.

© Michael EmbryAs you can see from these images, our little walk didn't even scratch the surface of things to see and do in electrifying Chi-town

We'll definitely return for a visit dedicated to the Windy City.

Until the next time...


Friday, September 19, 2014

Riding the Rails

If you've been wondering where I've been the past couple of weeks, my wife Mary and I went on a two-week railroad vacation billed as "America's Beautiful West." 

All aboard in Chicago
It was quite an amazing and rewarding trip, and beautiful as well.

We boarded the Amtrak's Southwest Chief at Chicago's historic Union Station, then spent the next two days traveling 1,699 miles to Flagstaff, Ariz., making brief stops along the way at Fort Madison, Iowa; Kansas City; Dodge City, Kan.; La Junta, Colo.; Raton and Albuquerque, N.M., and Winslow, Ariz. (we didn't have time to get off the train and stand on the corner).   

Mary and I had a small, semi-private roomette on one of the sleeper cars. The full sleeper area had a bit more space and included a shower. Some folks opted to travel in the coach cars, which didn't offer any privacy but had comfortable reclining seats where they could sleep.

The guided tour, offered by Vacations by Rail (check the Internet for other tour companies), attracted 47 people including folks from Denmark, India, and Australia as well as Alabama, Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois. We were the only Kentuckians.


Although most of us didn't know each other before the tour (there was a family of six people on the trip), many of us bonded and developed friendships over the two weeks. That was one of the highlights of the 4,500-mile journey.

Our friendly, knowledgeable, personable and tireless guide was Kileen Prather, a former school librarian as well as a travel blogger and romance (boomer lit) novelist. She kept us in line,  and on time, while adding some side trips that enhanced the entire experience. She's a fun gal with lots of stories, puzzles, and jokes.
Tour bus

We also had someone who handled our luggage and other duties when we were bused to places where we couldn't ride the train. All we knew him by was Clair, a man of few words (often wearing a western hat) from Idaho who always got things done ahead of time.

Over the next few weeks I'll have posts about the various places we visited -- on and off the tracks.

Until the next time...