Category Archives: Adventures

Casino Action

If you aren’t into playing casino games, then you can just ignore this entire post! But, if you’ve been following us for very long, you’ll know that I do like a good game of blackjack.

What you may not know is that not all blackjack games (tables) are created equal. There’s a wide variation in table minimum bets, of course, anywhere from $1 to $100 per hand. Whether you are a low roller or a high roller, you pick the table minimum that suits your comfort level and budget. But, even more important than the dollar amount are the table rules. Those rules make an enormous difference in the house edge, that is, the casino’s statistical winning advantage.

First, I look for the cheapest table that offers a 3:2 blackjack win payout. Tables that offer a blackjack 6:5 return or (horrors!) 1:1 return, tip the odds significantly more in the casino’s favor. Other rule variations include the ability (or not) to double down on any two cards, re-split aces, late surrender, and whether the dealer stands on a soft 17. You can play blackjack games with one deck, two decks, up to 8 decks. The dealer may manually shuffle the cards, or use a continuous shuffle machine. All of these factors affect the house edge and your odds of winning — or at least, slowing your losses! The tables I play typically have a house edge of around 0.5%, which means that for every $100 I play, theoretically I would lose only 50 cents. (The house edge for penny slots runs 10-12%, so you see why I don’t play the slot machines.)

The house edge holds true only over very long periods of time. In the short term, anything can happen. I’ve had great winning streaks and I’ve had terrible losing streaks. But, over a long time of playing, I’ve pretty much broken even playing blackjack. Slot machines, on the other hand, are just gadgets that eat my money.

If you are at all interested in learning to play, I highly recommend downloading one or two of the free blackjack trainer apps. They drill on basic strategy, which is really helpful if you ever decide to play at an actual blackjack table. Another resource is the Wizard of Odds website that has more information than you ever wanted/needed to know about the game!

So why do I like playing blackjack? It’s just fun! Unlike playing slots, I have decisions to make and strategy to follow, so it’s not mindless. I enjoy the interaction with the dealer and other players. I just like playing the game. At least, as long as I’m not losing a whole lot! That’s why I only play $5 (or less) tables with really good rules. I can usually play a good long time without losing my shirt in the process.

While in Vegas, our favorite blackjack spot is Ellis Island Casino, just off the strip. It’s a small-ish casino with a locals vibe and free parking. It is smoke-free, which I particularly appreciate. They currently offer one table of $5 blackjack with very good rules. During these COVID times, the seats at the table are limited to 3 (instead of the usual 6), so I usually have to wait a while for a spot. But once at the table, I’ll play a few hours, enjoy some free adult beverages, and usually get comped at the end with a few bucks for the casino’s café. So far on this trip I’m up $150. Hopefully I won’t give it all back before I leave.

But even if I do, it’s still all good!

Death Valley National Park

As a former runner, Death Valley for me is always associated with the extreme Badwater ultramarathon. Billed as the toughest footrace on earth, the race begins at the Badwater basin, the lowest point in North America at 280 feet below sea level. Oh yeah, it’s in JULY in freakin’ DEATH VALLEY. Daytime temperatures at that time of year average 110 degrees F! If that’s not bad enough, the race covers a whopping 135 miles, ending at Mt Whitney in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The course goes over 3 mountain ranges in the process, ascending a cumulative 14,600 feet.

I’ve long been fascinated by endurance events, especially extreme one like this. I’ve read several books on the topic, and a personal acquaintance of mine (Bob Becker) completed a Badwater Double a few years ago. That’s the even more insane unofficial “round trip” event whereby one completes the official event, climbs to the highest point in the continental US atop Mt Whitney (14,505 feet), and hoofs it back to the Badwater basin starting point! That’s a round trip distance of 292 miles! And did I mention that he was the oldest person to have done so at the time at age 70? Just incredible.

After reading about the various way points and locations within Death Valley National Park, it was exciting to me to actually see them in person. Places with names like Badwater, and Stovepipe Wells, and the Devil’s Golf Course. I was interested to see just how remote they are. Because of its location in one of the driest places on earth, I did not realize that there was actual water at Badwater. Hydraulic pressure from the surrounding mountains forces mineral-laden water to the surface at this lowest spot. Evaporation creates large salt flats, but there are always puddles, even in the extreme heat. The mules of early explorers refused to drink the “bad” water, hence the name.

One of the advantages of having a 4-wheel drive truck is the ability to take some of the “off highway” roads. By driving just outside the Park we were able to pick up the one-way, 26 mile long Titus Canyon Road. The road took us through the desert flat, up and over Red Pass. The scenery was spectacular, and the road was only scary in a few places! (A high clearance vehicle was definitely required at times) Coming out of the pass, we encountered Leadville ghost town with its closed mine and few defunct structures. Before reaching the Death Valley floor, the road snaked through Titus Canyon. The walls of the canyon seemed just wide enough for our vehicle in places, and towered above us. We had hiked through slot canyons before, but driving through one was a completely different experience! The entire drive took several hours, but it was entirely worth it.

Death Valley …. another Passport stamp and another National Park checked off our list!

It’s Vegas, Baby!

Coming from the serenity of the Grand Canyon, the contrast couldn’t be greater. The Grand Canyon was all about majestic natural wonder. Vegas is the king of kitschy architecture and excessive partying. From the darkest of night skies to the brightest of lights. What a difference a week makes!

After months of social distancing, walking the crowded Vegas strip seems almost claustrophobic. I’m not worried about COVID at this point, being fully vaccinated, but the sheer press of bodies seems unnatural. According to local news media, Vegas tourism is almost back to pre-pandemic levels and based upon my observations — I can believe it! It’s good for the local economy, but it is quite a re-adjustment for me. The hotels, restaurants and casinos are still requiring masking and social distancing but the sidewalks of the Strip …. not so much.

I do like Vegas, though — as long as I’m not staying right on the Vegas Strip. I can take the Strip’s over-the-top-ness only for a few hours before I need a break from the overstimulation. By staying off-strip in quieter environs, I can meter the experience into smaller doses. We are parked at the very lovely Oasis RV Park, conveniently located just south of the Strip. This is a true resort, with many amenities. It is a great location to park for a month!

Our stay overlaps a week with a couple of our Tucson friends, Johnny and Patti. We knew we would meet up here, and just happened to end up only a few sites away in this very large RV park! Jeff has his mountain bike buddy for a few days more, and we’re having fun experiencing Vegas together, playing cards, and just socializing.

A month in Vegas. What could possibly go wrong?

Grand Canyon National Park

One of the great blessings of this nomadic lifestyle is the ability to see and explore some of the truly iconic landscapes of our marvelous country. Every time I explore one of these wonders, I give thanks that our nation had the foresight to set aside and protect these special places.

The Grand Canyon is one of those iconic places. I’ve seen photographs since I was a child, but photos simply can’t convey the scope and scale of the enormous multi-colored ravine. This park also gave us two notable firsts: the first time we drove our big rig into a national park, and the first time we were able to actually camp in a national park campground! Typically, parks can’t accommodate a rig of our size.

I’ll do a full review separately, but the Trailer Village RV park on the South Rim was simply fantastic. We had seen troublesome reviews complaining of narrow roads, and low hanging branches, but we had no trouble navigating into our site. We had full hookups with 50 amp electric and, surprisingly, cable TV! We didn’t have any kind of cell phone coverage, but that’s a small price to pay for camping next to one of the world’s great wonders. As a bonus, several elk frequently roamed the area, grazing unconcerned next to campers. The night sky blazed bright with a zillion stars. You just don’t get that in your typical RV resort!

Due to COVID, some of the services weren’t available, such as most of the shuttle buses. However, the area is well-connected with a network of roads and bicycle paths, so getting around was a breeze. We were camped just a mile from the Visitor Center and the rim trail. Strolling the rim trail was almost a spiritual experience — I felt like an insignificant speck next to the enormous canyon.

During our week here, Jeff embarked on a long-planned backpacking adventure into the canyon. He hiked down Bright Angel trail and pitched his tent for two nights at the Indian Gardens campground, about 2/3 of the way down. There was a bit of a hiccup with our ancient backpacking tent. Although we checked to make sure all of the pieces were there, we didn’t actually set up the tent. When he arrived, he found the rain fly to be a fused mess after years in storage. He painstakingly peeled it apart (more or less), only to have one of the main poles snap when he attempted to erect the tent. Ever the Eagle Scout, he found a sturdy forked stick, lashed it to the tent, and managed to secure the jury-rigged pole into place. It worked!

The second day, he hiked down to the Colorado River and back, and viewed the sunset from Plateau Point. The following morning, he packed up and headed up. Mindful of the significant elevation gain (and on tired legs), he started off intentionally slowly and conservatively. Four groups passed him by initially, but as he went up, he picked up steam and ultimately passed them all! (They nicknamed him the Tortoise.) He was tired, but in good shape, and happy to have had the experience.

The South Rim is an expansive complex of visitor center, hotels, campgrounds, service buildings and shops. There is even a surprisingly well-stocked grocery store. A week wasn’t enough to see and do it all.

Definitely a place to return to.

Petrified Forest National Park

The Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Park lies about a 3 hour drive away from our Cottonwood area RV park. The drive itself is beautiful and varied as it takes you up and around the heights of Flagstaff and back down into the high desert terrain.

I’ve seen the occasional isolated petrified log, but I’ve never seen anything like the scale of lumber-rock that exists in this park. It fools the eye. From a distance, it looks just like someone has mowed down a bunch of trees. Because of the way the long, heavy logs fracture, it even looks like the lumberjacks chain sawed the logs into neat chunks, awaiting some purpose. But when you get close …. it’s all rock!

Petrified wood is, in essence, a fossil. 225 million years ago, the land that makes up the Park was located about where Costa Rica is now, part of the massive Pangea continent. The area was in a tropical climate and covered in dense forest. Giant trees lived, died and were buried in river sediment and volcanic ash, which prevented their normal decay. Over the millennia, those buried logs were saturated with minerals which replaced the organic material, creating the petrified wood. Eventually uplift and erosion caused the logs to re-emerge from the sediment they were buried in.

Petrified Forest National Park is essentially a “drive through” park with stops and short trails at several highlight features. It is located within the Painted Desert, with its hills, mesas and valleys of brightly colored horizontal sandstone layers. Along with the scenery, the Park includes Puebloan ruins and areas with petroglyphs. But for us, the highlight was the amazing, ancient petrified wood.

I really wanted a chunk of that stuff to keep, but of course, collecting anything within a National Park is a great big no-no. However, just outside the park in the nearby town of Holbrook, you can find gift shops that are simply loaded with the rock. Tons and tons of it! So, if you want to collect a piece, there are ample legal alternatives! I was able to obtain my multi-colored specimen.

On the way back, we stopped in Winslow, immortalized in the Eagles song, “Take It Easy”. We took the obligatory photo at the “Standin’ on the Corner” statue and grabbed a late lunch. It’s nice to know that a little piece of old Route 66 still survives.

You know the song is stuck in your head now! You’re welcome.

“Standin’ on the corner in Winslow Arizona, such a fine sight to see. It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flat bed Ford, slowin’ down to take a look at me ….”

Hitting the Sedona Trails

The scenery around the Sedona area is simply mind-blowing – Jeff calls it nonstop “eye candy”.  The deep-green vegetation against bright red sandstone formations is spectacularly beautiful. And there’s no better way to see the beauty than by hitting the extensive trail system.

Many of the trails are multi-use, that is, open to hikers, bikers and equestrians. In fact, we hiked some of the same trails that Jeff loves to bike on, just so I could see what he sees. There are all levels of trails from easy to double-black-diamond. None of the trails have extreme elevation changes, although there are stretches of rather steep up and down. The more advanced trails have some narrow and gnarly trails with steep drop offs that aren’t for the faint of heart. But there are ample moderate trails that take you into the heart of the red rock formations. While hiking, I had to stop frequently, just to take it all in. Magnificent!

Sedona also boasts a number of four-wheel drive trails. We rented a Razr two-seater one day and took it for a spin. Jeff has immortalized the day in one of his you-tube videos. The video doesn’t really show how steep some of the sections are! It was definitely more interesting and more technically challenging to drive here than in New Hampshire (where we last rented a 4-wheel machine).  The weather at this time of year is glorious – sunny and crisp.

We have a four-wheel-drive F-150 truck for a reason, so took the truck out on some of the mellower OHV trails. Near our Clarksdale RV park lies the Coconino National Forest with its network of trails. We saw a number of boondocker RVs, taking advantage of free BLM land camping. The forest also hosts amenities such as a large model airplane airfield. We watched one Sunday morning as enthusiasts piloted enormous remote-control airplanes through aerial dives, spins and stalls. One hobbyist piloted his aircraft using virtual reality glasses. I guess he was getting the cockpit view through a camera mounted at the front of his plane. I’ve never seen anything like that!

Farther up the trails, we encountered a First Peoples historic site, the Honanki Cliff Dwellings. A short trail took us by ruins of dwellings built on the ground against the cliff, taking advantage of rocky overhangs. We could also see some well-preserved petroglyphs.

The Sedona area is beautiful and interesting, no matter whether you bike, hike, or drive!

The Power of Science

I’m a scientist and have seen many marvels in my lifetime, but one of the greatest has to be last year’s development of the COVID vaccine. I’m not going to get into the politics – I have good friends that are choosing not to be vaccinated at this time and I respect their position. This is a free country and people have the right to choose or refuse medical treatment according to their individual circumstances.

But, to us …. It’s freakin’ miraculous. Normally, vaccines take YEARS to be developed. The fact that several vaccines were developed AND tested AND scaled up for mass production within a single year is simply unprecedented. It’s not just the vaccine itself, it’s producing all of the ancillary equipment needed for mass distribution, and setting up the logistics for mass vaccination. I’ve never seen anything like it in my lifetime.

Jeff and I intended to get the vaccination from the outset. As healthy under-65-ers, we expected to wait quite some time before we were eligible. But as States began prioritizing by age, our opportunity arose sooner than expected. As moving targets, a two-dose regimen posed some logistical issues for us, but we solved that by scheduling both doses in Phoenix. The vaccination registration website was clunky and overburdened, but we managed to secure appointments on the same day, if not at the same mass vaccination site.

For our first dose, we drove up from Tucson. The drive-through vaccination process was actually inspiring. The entire process was quick and efficient as we were ushered through multiple lanes and checkpoints by friendly volunteers. Jeff received his jab, waited the required 15 minutes, and we drove away, heading to a second vaccination site for my turn. It took longer to drive to the second location than it did for me to receive my shot. Easy-peasy!

For our second dose, we drove down from Sedona. As before, our return appointments were at two different locations (and no, they wouldn’t just give me the shot at the first location because of the way they allocated doses, believe me, we tried!). My original site had closed, so I was booked into a new location. This one was less than efficient, and we spent well over an hour waiting in line. But, we got-er-done!

It’s such a relief.

Finally, I can see an eventual end to pandemic restrictions. I’m tired of a wearing stupid mask everywhere. I want to go to the theater and out to dinner. I want to go on a cruise. I want to play cards, and bingo, and socialize in the campgrounds we visit. I want to hug my loved ones and not worry, just a bit, that I might pass along a potentially deadly disease. I want my normal life back.

We’re getting there!

Internet Woes

It was all so simple in our former sticks-and-bricks house. We had a lovely DSL line running into our home, feeding a constant, consistent broadband data pipeline. We could game. We could stream. It was heavenly, and we took it so for granted.

Then we went on the road full-time. We have a decent set up for data and several options. Our primary internet data connection is through an AT&T hotspot with an unlimited data plan. Since we live inside a metal box (think Faraday cage), we installed a WeBoost  4G-X cell signal enhancer antenna system which boosts our cell signal and re-broadcasts it inside our motorhome. Most campgrounds also offer wifi. It sounds good, right?

In reality, our connectivity is highly variable. It all depends on the cell signal strength where we are sitting, and the number of folks trying to connect. In a major city, our signal is usually fairly robust. But, we typically don’t camp inside a major city – we are at a campground somewhere on the fringe of civilization. As a result, our cell signal is not so robust. Even with a strong signal, 4G data speed is limited. Slow uploads. Laggy web pages. Don’t even THINK about streaming. One must exercise a great deal of patience.

But wait, there’s the campground wifi! That works, right?

In reality, not so much. In all of our travels, I’ve encountered very few campground wifi systems that are any better than our mobile hotspot. I have run across one or two that had a very good signal, even streaming-worthy. But that is the rare exception. Most of the time, it is fair useless.

We make do. Some areas are better than others. Now that the COVID restrictions are easing, we can once again haunt Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts and take advantage of their wifi for uploading/downloading larger files. It works.

But, the problem is, I’m spoiled right now. At our Tucson winter home, we subscribed to broadband internet and experienced the glory of 40 Mbs download speed and 5 Mbs upload speed. Video streaming!! Both of us at once!! Fast file uploads! Crystal-clear Zoom calls! It was heaven.

Now we’re back on the road, and back to low-speed and unreliable data streams. <Heavy sigh>

I guess we’ll just have to enjoy the great outdoors!

Settled in Sedona

After 4 months stationary, I must admit that I felt a bit of moving-day performance anxiety. This was the longest period our bus had ever just sat in place. We started packing up the day before our move, to ensure we had plenty of time to complete all of the break-camp steps. Happily, everything worked as designed. The jacks went up (although a bit squeakier than usual), the slides went in, and new slide toppers retracted uneventfully. We checked and double checked each other, just to be sure we hadn’t forgotten anything after so long!

We left a day earlier than we had originally planned in order to change out our four drive-axle tires. They were the last of the original Goodyear tires, and at 5 years old were due for replacement. We bid goodbye to our Tucson friends and headed out early to the tire shop for new Michelins. We had figured on spending the day getting this done, but were finished around noon. We called our Sedona-area campground and were able to check in a day early! All in all, our travel day went quite uneventfully — which is the way I like it!

We’re settled in at a brand-new campground in the small town of Clarksdale, about 30 minutes from Sedona. Rain Spirit RV resort didn’t even exist when we were here three years ago. It’s relatively small, with about 65 RV sites, and only a dozen or so big-rig capable sites. But the sites are solid, level and open, and the facilities are beautiful. There is a pool and hot tub, a small exercise room, and a small lounge with a lending book and DVD library. The individual bathroom units are tiled, clean, spacious and comfortable. It’s a fantastic little RV park, and super affordable. It’s also in a very pretty setting, with a view of hills all around. The only negative is the internet signal quality in the area. After months of high-speed internet, it is tough to adjust to a minimal bandwidth again!

Cottonwood’s “Old Town” is just a couple of miles up the road with its shops and restaurants. We’ve already found a couple of new favorite eateries. Hog Wild BBQ has some of the best ribs we’ve ever had. And Mai Thai on Main makes some absolutely fantastic curry. It’s a great home for a month!

And of course, there’s nearby Sedona! Our very first day here, Jeff called me mid-bike-ride. He said, “I forgot how just how beautiful it is here. Please, can we come back here next year?!”

You bet!

Tucson Wrap-up

Once again, the winter season has flown by! Tomorrow we head out on our 2021 West Coast loop! Although many venues here were COVID-closed, we did manage to get out and do some sightseeing. I’ll share some of the highlights.

We visited several interesting museums during our stay. I already wrote about our visit to Biosphere 2. Another unique display was at the Titan Missile Museum, located just south of here. A guided tour takes you through an honest-to-gosh missile silo, complete with a (non functional) missile. The tour guide explains the detailed shift change procedures, life while stationed in the silo, and the sequence of events required for a launch. Jeff even got to push the launch button! It’s not a long tour, about 45 minutes, but it is quite interesting.

We also toured the Pima Air and Space Museum. There’s not many “Space” exhibits, but there are hangers and acres of airplanes of all types and vintages. It included everything from small kit-built hobby planes to a Presidential 747. There were commercial and military aircraft of every era. During non-COVID times, there are docents and guided tours, including a tour of the enormous airplane “boneyard”. We just wandered around and looked at a whole lot of planes. If you are an airplane buff, you’ll be in heaven! I got airplane overload after a while.

Organ Pipe National Monument lies a couple of hours southwest of Tucson, adjoining the Mexico border. The distinctive organ pipe cactus is abundant in Mexico, but only grows in the US in this area. The park has several hiking trails and scenic drives. A downloadable nature guide allows for an informative, self-paced driving tour of this beautiful area.

Of course, the Seguaro National Park is right here in Tucson. We did a fair bit of hiking in the park, as well as in nearby Sabino Canyon Recreational Area. I’m not necessarily a huge fan of the desert environment, but I’m warming up to it after this winter’s experience. The environment seemed rather brown and dead when we arrived, but a few winter rainstorms caused the area to green and even bloom. The rains caused seasonal waterfalls to flow, which was quite exciting! Seeing water flow in the normally dry desert seems almost miraculous.

Of course, the best part of our stay has been meeting some fantastic people and making new, great friends. We have exciting plans for this year, but we’ll be back in November to rejoin our friends and continue exploring the Tucson area.