Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Vegas Launch Pad

As I stare out my hotel window a block off the strip, I can see the lights of the Old Vegas, still shining, but maybe not as bright as they once were. 12 stories up in the Las Vegas Hilton, I peer to the left and see the New Vegas, it's neon seemingly brighter, beckoning in it's Disney like, yet corporate way for me to leave the comfort of my room and venture into their fantasy world of constant bells and chimes, begging for me to stick in that next $20 bill with the false promise of riches as a reward.

It's 3am. Back home in Kansas City I would still be dreaming...jumbled thoughts racing at 'rem' speed, on the verge of the magic moment where the days revelation, quickly to be forgotten, brings me out of blissful rest. Not today. Not in Vegas. Here I wake early, trouble finding rest for my weary mind as anticipation of the week ahead works to a frenzy. It's quickly becoming a yearly tradition, this restless dance that promises adventure and memories abound.

For the past several years, each April I travel to sin city as part of my wonderful career in Radio Broadcasting. It's the annual National Association of Broadcasters Convention, bringing thousands of visitors from around the world to see the latest innovations in Television and Radio. Doesn't really mean a whole lot to those not in the industry, but for some companies it's make or break for their products. At first, for me, it was a nice distraction from the daily office routine. A chance to meet many of the clients I'd only visualized through the other end of a phone line. And they never look they way they sound...the guy with the deepest and ballsiest voice is usually the 5'6" scrawny disc jockey who, when speaking, appears almost cartoonish with a voice that could never match their physic. The whole Vegas experience quickly became routine after only a couple of years, and it was almost robotic how I prepared my mind for the four days of standing on the show room floor, almost losing my voice, preaching the gospel of our latest Radio Automation software.

That all changed when I met Kathy, and my travels to Vegas took on a new dimension through Legends of America. For her, it was the perfect staging area for searching out ghost towns and history of the American West. She makes it a point to coordinate her trip so that she meets me here in Vegas about a day before I'm finished with the convention. Travels close to Vegas while I wrap up work, then takes me on a longer adventure as soon I'm done. In 2006, we traveled down to northern areas of Arizona, spending some time at the Grand Canyon and concentrating efforts for her in depth work on Route 66. It was a nice trip, but by then the whole Route 66 trek was becoming old hat for me. I think it was Kathy's 2nd or 3rd round on the Mother Road, making sure to document each and every detail of those out of the way places that once thrived before the Interstate stole away their life's breath.

Last year she changed things up a bit. Instead of meeting me in Vegas, she flew into Phoenix. Spent a couple of days traveling northern Arizona visiting some very interesting 'way out of the way' ghost towns of the Old West. As soon as the NAB dog and pony show was over, I met her there and we started making our way south. Once we got through Tucson and started down I-19, I quickly realized just how south we were. Border Patrol agents in green and white Home Land Security trucks dotting the road every few miles as we moved in closer to Nogales on the Mexico border.

The real adventure began when we veered off the interstate, out to seek our featured destination of the day, Ruby Arizona. After about a mile on the state highway it occurred to me. "I'll just bet we see some illegal immigrants sneakin in on this trip"... The words still hanging in the air of our rented Jeep when out of the corner of my eye I caught a small group of men running through the brush just a few yards from the road. Being raised in the Texas Panhandle, then living in Kansas for so long, it caught me by surprise. I mean, think about often do you see a group of men running through desert brush, then all simultaneously hitting the deck as soon as they spot you. I didn't know how to react, so I went with my first instinct and quickly put on the brakes as I declared "Like those right there!"

Now, I know I'm the one who stopped, but as Kathy started turning on her camera and moved toward the door handle, a since of panic hit that told me I should hit the gas as quickly as I hit the brake. "Wait! I've got to get a picture of this" Kathy said, as each man peered up like prairie dogs then quickly ducked back down. Too late, my chicken shit ass was out of there, not wanting to stick around for the spectacle and hoping that just one of those Homeland Security trucks would appear out of thin air. As we built up distance between us, Kathy could see them jumping the road, almost seeming to laugh with glee as some kid would do playing hide and seek. It should have been our cue to be more prepared, and think through where we were heading, but we were focused on history, and Ruby was a Gold Mine.

We soon left our nicely paved State Highway, for the dirt and rock of a State Road. How they could call this a State Road was beyond me, aren't their rules for what qualifies? There were places washed out that I would never dare travel in my car, but we anticipated this and the Jeep made it just fine. Along the way we would see milk jugs of water placed along the side of the road, we assumed for the immigrants passing through. But as far as seeing any more, the hills of southern Arizona would shield them from our quizitive view.

We finally reached Ruby, and it was worth the effort. The once thriving mining town had a rich history, including bandits, murder and justice. We could even feel the ghostly presence of occupants past as we toured the abandoned school house, and had a wonderful time hearing the stories told by the lone occupant, hired by the lands owner to safe keep the towns historic treasures. By the time we were done, I was ready for more stable ground though, and glad to be heading to the hotel in Nogales.

Nogales it self has a great history, but that wasn't our focus. The next days travel started early as we had a busy schedule traveling along the border, seeing more ghost towns once thriving on Arizona's mining opportunities back in the late 1800's. Towns like Harshaw and Washington Camp that would delight Kathy for days digging up stories of yesteryear. The plan was to stick as close to the border as possible, traveling down some pretty desolate back roads at a snails pace, dragging out what was probably a 70 mile trip over toward Bisbee, to a day long adventure.

Kathy and I, still in our gh0st town bliss, were ignorant to the danger we were putting ourselves in. We finally realized just how much danger when after a long stretch without seeing a single soul, we happened upon five border patrol vehicles. Their watchful eyes as we passed by should have been enough to tell us we shouldn't be there, and as one of the agents pulled in behind us, thoughts of being interrogated raced through my mind. He never 'pulled us over', just kept a distance behind as we made our way toward more abandoned ruins. As we finally stopped to take pictures, the agent slowly made his way beside the jeep and stopped. "What are you folks up to out here?" His eyes moving toward the back of the jeep, then landing on Kathy in the passenger seat...her straw cowboy hat pitched back with a silly grin on her face as she held a map up declaring "Ghost Town Huntin!" The agents eyes seemingly relieved as he quickly sized us up as tourists and didn't bother getting out of his truck. "We normally don't get visitors like you back here. Usually their too scared"...."Scared of what?" I retorted, trying to imagine what would be so bad, other than a few illegal immigrants crossing our path. "Drug smugglers mainly", the agent's voice rang out with a tinge of amusement at just how naive we were.

It hadn't even crossed our mind. You hear about it all the time in the news, but for what ever reason we were so caught up in our adventure, we never stopped to think about the real danger of running into less desirables in the middle of a drug transaction. People who wouldn't think twice about shooting us on the spot, or stealing our Jeep, leaving us deserted, miles away from any civilization. Needless to say, Kathy and I didn't stick around long, and soon we were back on our way to Bisbee, thankful for the reminder that ghost town hunting should be better thought out.

The rest of our trip was fantastic. Catching the sites of Tumbstone, Bisbee and many other notable Old West main stays. The trip wasn't long enough though, and Kathy and I have said more than once that we need to hit that area of Arizona again. It gave her plenty of writing material though, and both of us some great memories.

This year, Kathy's meeting me in Vegas again. She'll arrive Wednesday, day before my work is wrapped up. Plans on hitting a ghost town or two she didn't get on the last trip nearby, then Thursday doing Route 66 again out to Barstow and back. Friday, we're heading out for Utah, where we will spend the next several days visiting places of yesteryear and digging up history. I'm sure it will be another great adventure, with plenty to blog about here in the days to come. In the meantime, it's daylight now, and time for me to come back to reality. Vegas awaits to tempt my wallet.

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