Thursday, December 17, 2009

December Travels

Dear Family and Friends: We had a couple of mid-December weeks of travel -- all family-related, mostly flying, not in Tuzigoot. Nevertheless, for the record, here's our report:

Week of Dec. 7:

Our travels this week had one motivating objective, but, as is our wont, we tied on a couple of others. Grandson Andrew Hinkle is on a traveling soccer team, the Rio Rancho (NM) Elite FC Gladiators, and they were playing a weekend tournament in the Raleigh, NC area. He would be arriving on Wednesday, but Dad Matt could not get there until late Thursday. So, we agreed to play the role of surrogate parents and go to NC to meet Andrew at the airport, drive him to the team motel in Wilson (about 60 miles east of the Raleigh-Durham airport - RDU), and be there for his first game on Thursday. (We couldn't fly with him because he had a ticket on ANOTHER AIRLINE, not SW.)

Hadn't been to see my Mom for a while, so, en route to RDU, we flew to OK on Tuesday. Had a brief visit with Mom, then enjoyed an evening at sister Connie's house. All six of her boys came to dinner (three are married; three are still at home), along with spouses and children. Also, sister Verla came over, too. Husband Tom was on an overnight business trip. We had a very nice, serene time. (Susie always says, "Connie's so serene.")

On Wed. we beat Andrew to RDU by about three hours, so used some of our waiting time to visit the used-book store in the airport. I think this is a great idea for an airport and wish more airports had them. Whenever possible, I help them stay in business. So if you're ever passing through RDU, ...
Andrew arrived on time and we picked up our rental car and found our way to Wilson -- ably assisted by the GPS in Susie's Verizon phone.

It was cold in NC, bone-chilling, in mid-30s. Andrew's first game was Thursday at 5pm, as the sun went down. As you can see, the stands were not packed. The lady in the red hat was there, though.

Fortuitously, we had parked at a spot overlooking the field where Andrew was playing. We went to the car at half time to warm up and didn't leave until the game was over. Matt had arrived just before halftime, coincidentally coming from business meetings in OKC, from whence we had just come 24 hours earlier, and he joined us in the car -- engine and heater running.

After the game we all had dinner at Cracker Barrel, then Matt took our place in the Holiday Inn Express (clean sheets?) and Susie and I drove back to Cary, in the Raleigh area, to stay with son Mike, Karen, and Jason for the rest of the weekend.

Friday Mike went with us back to Wilson for a 1:00 game -- a tense, hard-fought 1-0 victory for the Gladiators. Still cold, but enough sunshine peeking through that we watched from the sideline.

This was a huge soccer weekend in the Raleigh area. Something like 400 teams and 7,000 players were in action. Adding to this was the fact that the NCAA Division I Final Four in men's college soccer was also happening in Cary. Andrew's team went to the Friday night semifinals and Matt came to Mike's house to visit, stay warm, and watch the games on TV. The games were sold out when Mike checked Thursday, but, cold as it was, we couldn't say we were disappointed not to attend.

Saturday we switched our soccer allegiance to Jason, who is playing in an indoor soccer league. He scored a nice goal on a high, hard kick to the upper right corner of the goal.

Andrew, in his first year on the Gladiators, is the back-up goalie. On Sunday, we heard from Matt, he played 25 minutes or so in goal in their last game and did quite well. We were long gone by this time, catching a very early flight out -- not many seats available on outbound flights, due in no small part, we suppose, to all the soccer teams in town. Several of our recent flights have required getting up between four and five a.m. But, when you're flying free, how can you complain? Thank you, Mandi.

Week of Dec. 14.

Monday we washed clothes and re-loaded our suitcases, the objective this time being Las Vegas and the grand opening of the new hotel/casino, Aria, located in the new and still building City Center. City Center is the nation's largest privately funded building project: 5 years in construction to this point, $8.4 billion, 18 million square feet in the total complex (the Aria casino and hotel, other hotels, a convention center, and high-end apartment towers) on 61 acres. Here's a link to a newspaper story about the opening of Aria. Click here for an interactive guide.
Daughter Heidi is Director of Beverages at Aria, a mind-boggling big job. I may not have this quite right, but I believe there are 11 restaurants and 40 bars in Aria. Hundreds of waitresses, bar tenders, and other staff report to her. (Aria has 12,000 employees.) The last several months she's been responsible for interviewing, hiring, and scheduling all these people -- and a few other things, too, like dealing with vendors, choosing the uniforms all these folks wear on the job, and responding to every crisis, large and small, that goes along with all of this. But, hey, she's helping make history.
We, along with grandson Tony, who has joined the Army and will be leaving for basic training after Christmas, flew to Las Vegas on Tuesday. Also, daughter Mandi and her husband, Paul, flew out from Denver and Nashville, respectively. The Grand Opening to the public would be Wednesday at midnight. Tuesday was a 'practice' day in Aria and employees' family and friends had been provided passes to sample the amenities and the machines and to ogle the ... facilities.

Heidi's boyfriend, Joey, met us and gave us our admission badges and passes and gave us a guided tour around the lobby (Joey has just started work at the Center's art gallery). We would just catch a couple of glimpses of Heidi the next couple of days as she riccocheted from place to place. We used our passes and Heidi's pull for a meal at a nice Chinese restaurant in Aria. Here's a nighttime picture of the exterior of Aria. Surreal!

Wednesday afternoon we met Paul and Mandi at Planet Hollywood where they were staying, right across The Strip from City Center. We gorged ourselves at a PH buffet, shopped at the Million Dollar Mile shopping center in PH -- can you believe it? Susie found a purse she needed -- then went outside at 11:00 to watch the fireworks show on top of Aria.

Some Las Vegas Crazy got in this next picture. Wait! That's Paul.

Aria opened to the public at midnight and Susie, Tony, and I went over to take another look and to see Heidi briefly for congratulatory hugs and tears.
One more view of the fascinating exterior.

Some more Aria info: The rooms feature "smart-home" technology. E.g., the rooms are programmed to turn on selected lights, adjust the temperature and drapes, and do everything but shake your hand as you enter the room. A single remote controls TV, video, music, drapes, wake-up calls, and room service. Computers will remember your settings and be ready for your next visit.

In a city known for excess, things have been designed to be environmentally friendly. They will run their own fleet of limousines powered by compressed natural gas. Heat from their power plant is captured to heat the Center's water. The hotel has a new generation of low-flow plumbing fixtures. Materials from the Boardwalk casino/hotel, which was torn down to make room for City Center, were used in constructing parking garages.

Of course, all this was designed and construction started before the current recession, which has hit Vegas hard. Financial problems the last two years almost halted construction. So, there's a lot of nervousness about how the City Center will do and how it will affect the whole Las Vegas economy. Stay tuned.

We flew home Thursday evening, met Matt and family for dinner, reloaded suitcases again, and on Friday drove to the Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch for granddaughter Malia's fourth birthday weekend. (Hard to believe it's been three years since we celebrated her first birthday in China, just four days after her "Gotcha Day.")

We decided to drive for a change of pace and because we were a little tired of flying. Set our own schedule, see the scenery, haul birthday and Christmas presents, not have to sit in a middle seat between two large persons, ... . Also, door to door, the total travel time driving is only 2-3 hours more than flying.

Got an early start that enabled us to stop at the other Las Vegas (some would say the real Las Vegas; Susie's late husband, Manny, when he was recruited to play football in Las Vegas, expected to see bright lights and showgirls. Oops. However, there was this good-looking drum major ... . ) on the way for the traditional breakfast at the Spic and Span restaurant. Good food, including tortillas freshly prepared on the premises.

Later in the day Susie was driving and I was dozing in the back seat. Crossed a small bridge that caused a bit of a jolt and a thump. I woke up with a start and looked out the window thinking our plane had just touched down on the runway. You know when you've spent too much time on an airplane when you ... .

Malia's favorite movie is the Disney movie, Cars. We brought her a toy Lightning McQueen car and a (non-endangered) polar bear.

Malia's birthday was Thursday, the 17th. The big event, other than Nei-Nei and Grandpa's Friday arrival, was a Saturday party for about a dozen of her friends. The Cars theme was continued with a Lightning McQueen birthday cake. The party was held at a "Rompin' Room" facility that featured things to climb and jump on.

The Birthday Princess holds court.

We left early Sunday morning and drove to the Denver airport to surprise Mandi on her birthday. We had just been with her in Las Vegas and she is coming here for a pre-Christmas dinner on Wednesday, so she wasn't expecting us. Susie said it seems a shame to be this close and not see Mandi, so we did. (Background. Mandi just transferred to Denver where she is an operations manager. Paul will be transferring from Nashville to Denver as soon as an opening occurs in provisioning.) Very long lines at the SW area early this morning - around 8:00am. Business is good, but we were glad we weren't flying. We took Mandi flowers and a balloon. Later in the morning, we heard, the ticketing agents got the waiting passengers to sing Happy Birthday to her -- that SW family spirit.

Many times, driving to and from Denver, I've noticed a sign just north of Trinidad for the Ludlow Massacre Memorial. Another historical summary here. Finally decided this time to stop and see. I had wrongly thought this was a massacre of an Indian camp, but it wasn't. (Some googling later turned up the Sand Creek Massacre, also in southern CO, but near the KS border, which is probably what I had in mind.)

Ludlow was the scene of a strike by coal mine workers against mining companies owned by the Rockefeller family (the strike affected mining throughout southern Colorado, not just Ludlow). The striking miners lived the winter of 1913-14 in a tent city built by the United Mine Workers and there was sporadic violence during this time. On April 20, 1914, an all-day firefight broke out and culminated in the state militia, staffed by company security personnel, burning the Ludlow camp. Numerical claims vary, but something like 20 people died that day. Many of the miners had dug pits beneath their tents so they and their families could be out of the line of sniper fire. Two women and 11 children all perished when a burning tent collapsed into the pit they were in and they suffocated.

The Ludlow Massacre spawned a wider Colorado Coalfield War, "the most violent labor conflict in history," according to Wikipedia, with mines being attacked all across the region. Death toll estimates ranged from 69 to 199. The war ended in about 10 days when President Woodrow Wilson sent in Federal troops to disarm both sides. The Rockefellers never settled with the Mine Workers, but in subsequent years John D Rockefeller II initiated many of the reforms the UMWA had been seeking.

The Memorial features this statue commemorating the miners and their family members. Wish I had a good bottom line for this story.

I always enjoy driving across NE NM on I-25 between Las Vegas and Raton. Some might call it barren, but I call it beautiful. Miles and miles of rolling grasslands, golden this time of year, set off by mountains, volcanic outcroppings, mesas, and ranches scattered here and there. It's too grand to capture in a picture, particularly while driving along at 70 mph, but here's my goodtobebackhome picture for these two weeks of travel. (Incidentally, the January issue of the New Mexico Magazine featured photo-contest winners and one was taken out the window of a moving car on I-25 between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Maybe they should create a special category for such photos.)

So, in two December weeks we saw five of our six kids and their families. What a Christmas present! (Sorry, Jeff and Valerie Hinkle; we'll come to Sioux City, IA as soon as you get settled in your new home. Their move from Aberdeen, SD, to Sioux City puts them much closer to a SW airport, which will help.) We're going to enjoy Christmas week at home.

Cheers and Happy New Year,

Susie and Rob