Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Arizona trip report - Part 3 of 8

Arizona Trip - Day 3

I woke up at 9:00a on Monday morning, December 7, 2009, intending to go to Sedona and see the sights. Perhaps take a few pictures of chasms or gorges or whatever else they have that's pretty. Maybe buy some things for Ali or my family as holiday gifts. Whatever I thought about doing, it wasn't what actually happened, which was:

The single strangest day of my life.

I stepped outside of the casino and found it to be cold and drizzling. My flight took off from Prescott airport to Farmington, NM at around 2:00p. Given the weather reports coming in, I decided it was prudent to go to the airport first to make sure everything was OK rather than go to Sedona. Besides, seeing Sedona in the rain wasn't what I had in mind. So I drove the 35 minutes to the airport and got out to investigate. A word here about Prescott regional airport. It's small. Super small. Think the show 'Wings'. There's a little airstrip there with planes parked just beyond the fence of the small parking lot that look like toys. The 'terminal', if you want to call it that, is a building about 150 feet long that you drive right up to and go inside like you're visiting a tiny strip mall shop. Inside is two small counters, a tiny booth for a rental car agency, and the entrance to a greasy spoon diner populated by Chuck Yeagers long lost cousins. Craggy faced old men with leather bomber jackets sipping black coffee out of ceramic mugs. I didn't catch their conversation but I'm sure there was talk of the weather coming in. It was very dark and overcast and the rain was light but cold and steady. There was no one at the Great Lakes Aviation counter (my airline carrier) when I got there and I found out from the girl manning the rental car kiosk that the desks don't have people there until an hour before the flight, to take care of passenger loading. I called the number for Great Lakes and told the woman my dilemma. I was worried the flight would be cancelled because of weather and could they give me a refund. They informed me that the flight was still showing on time departure so a refund wasn't necessary. I called the Ute Mountain casino and asked how much snow they were expecting. They told me 6-8 inches. Now I might have been able to brave flying in a clap trap airplane, through rough weather, over mountains, and drive through six inches of snow to get there. What I was worried about was reutrning! If I get snowed in in Colorado, my entire itinerary would be thrown off. So I did the prudent thing and decided to ditch. Yeah, I'd lose the price of my flight and the rental car, but at least I would be able to complete my trip in relative safety. I called back Great Lakes one more time to see what could be done. The only thing they could do, they told me, was give me credit towards a future flight and waive the change fee because of the weather. I told them that I wouldn't be able to take a future flight within the year's time span as I lived in New York and they don't serve that area. So all was lost.

I drove back to the town of Prescott for breakfast, intending to go to my Tuesday night destination, Parker, Arizona, a full day and a half earlier than I expected. When in town, I noticed the rain had turned to sleet and snow, which means the temperature was dropping. Not a good sign. I asked a local shop keeper on Whiskey Row where I could eat breakfast and she pointed me in the right direction. I bought a half pound of butterscotch flavored coffee beans from her as a token of my gratitude. Whiskey Row, incidentally, is in the center of town and used to be a row of bars and brothels in the old west. The town has maintained a good deal of that charm, even though it's perfectly gentrified now.

I ate a HUGE breakfast at a western place. So big, in fact, that I apologized in advance to the waiter on how much food I was going to be wasting. I had scrambled eggs with toast and potatoes, which in normal environments is a smallish meal. This monstrosity used 4 eggs, mixed with about a pound of seasoned beef and vegetables, a good pound and a half of seasoned potato hash and 4 pieces of thick Texas Toast. I ate about a quarter of it, maybe, and I was completely stuffed. Into the car I went and off I drove.

As I was driving out of town, the snow was getting thicker. It was no longer slushy now and the roads were starting to get icy. I passed a Days Inn and briefly thought about spending the night here and continuing on tomorrow after the storm had passed. But I pressed on. I saw a woman in a small truck, with her baby daughter strapped in the car seat next to her, stop on the side of the road to make a phone call. From the look of it, she lived beyond the mountain pass outside of town, a twenty mile drive. But she had stopped and called her husband to tell him she wasn't going through there. And still I pressed on.

You see, dear readers, I am an idiot. There's a joke my mother (Rest in Peace) once told me that goes something like this:

A devoutly religious man was sitting in his house when a flash flood hit the town. As the waters rose to his doorstep, his neighbors rowed by in a boat and offered him a ride to safety. "No thanks," said the man, "God will provide". As the water rose into his house, covering his couch and TV and he had to flee to the second floor, a canoe passed by his window, paddled by a man and his wife. They offered him a ride to safety and he waved them off. "Thank you, but God will provide." As the waters rose further and the only refuge was the very top of his roof, a helicopter swung by. A policeman with a bullhorn lowered a rope and pleaded with the man to grab on but he stood his ground. "God will provide!," he shouted. Finally, the man drowned. When he got up to heaven, he came face to face with God himself and asked, "Why didn't you provide? Why didn't you save me?". God replied, "What do you want? I sent a boat, a canoe and a helicopter!"

My friends, I am that man. I am an idiot. After multiple opportunities to stop my trip as the snow was getting thicker and the roads were starting to get covered, I kept driving. I kept driving even as I had to slow my speed to keep from fishtailing. I kept driving even as other drivers turned back. I kept driving even as the wind whipped up whiteout conditions, leaving my visibility under 60 feet. I kept driving. I saw a sign for the local National Forest and understood, with a sense of dread, that the next town I could stop at would not be for twenty miles. I was hoping desperately that the road I was on would go down the mountain, lower in elevation where the rain was. But the road kept going up at a steady pace. I was heading into a mountain pass in a National Forest with nothing around me for miles.

There were cars on the road, thankfully, so if I got stuck I could at least signal for help. But I was frightened. As I entered the mountain pass, the roads starting curving dangerously. My speed was already down to 15 MPH at the most. I was mostly riding on first gear trying to negotiate tricky turns. You see, my good friends, I was about 6200 feet in the air, the road was about 20 feet wide and there were NO GUARDRAILS! To my right was the mountainside, with a ditch in the road that if I fell into I would not be able to drive out of. Not a steep ditch, but a ditch of about 3 feet none the less. To my left, across one short lane of traffic, was the edge of a clif that fell into a ravine hundreds of feet deep. Over there was certain death. My car was already slipping on occasion and I pumped the brake, rather than slam on it, every time I needed some traction. At the speed I was going, the turns weren't too bad, but the incline and slope of the road was all over the place. When I saw the road take a sharp drop or rise, I had to brake or speed up accordingly, lest my car go sliding in the wrong direction. It got so bad at one point that I unbuckled my seat belt and unlocked the driver side door for fear that I would need to jump out of my car if it started sliding slowly and uncontrollably for the cliff.

I'd like to say I'm a brave guy, not given to too much fear, but I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't crapping my pants at this point. Not literally, but you get the idea.

At the 10 mile mark, halfway through this mountain pass, I was traveling behind a Ford 150 truck who was helping me out by cutting a path through the snow for me. At this point, the road was covered by a full 2-3 inches of snow and ice and every little bit helped. The road up ahead took a sharp incline and the Ford took it at too slow a speed and couldn’t make it up. I had to come to a full stop as I saw him desperately spin his tires trying to make traction. He finally gave up and pushed his truck to the side of the road, allowing me to pass. I had trouble making it up the hill as well, but my lighter car had an advantage and I made it without too much effort. I kept driving slowly until, finally, the elevation started dropping and the precipitation turn to rain. As soon as I had clear roads under my wheels, without a hint of snow, and the temperaure was back in the upper 30's, I increased my speed to 40 mph. I was out of the mountains and headed into the valley.

This is a picture taken from Google Maps of a section of the road I'm talking about. Try to imagine it with driving snows and covered in ice!

I had to stop on the side of the road next to a farm just to breathe a sigh of relief. It had been the scariest 2.5 hours of my life.

There was another 90 miles until I got to Parker, AZ and the Blue Water Casino, and I didn't know if I'd need to go through another mountain pass. So at the first gas station I saw, I stopped at the stop n' shop and purchased an impromptu emergency preparedness kit. Two nutri-bars, a jar of peanut butter, two big bottles of water, toilet paper and last Sunday's paper (in case I needed extended reading material). Everything I would need to survive a night long stay in my car.

As it happens, there was no more snow, but the monsoon rains and wind made it difficult to see for long stretches of time. As I sped along the road, as fast as I could, I came along a sheep farm with a hundred or so of the critters all grazing by the side of the road. I couldn't resist stopping to take a picture, rain and all.

I also went through a small mountain range afterwards which resulted not in snow but in thick shrouded fog which lowered my visibility back to about 40 feet. As I crawled at 30 MPH behind a huge semi-trailer, I thought to myself, "How did I get in this situation? I could have been in a hotel room right now!". After another hour of slow going and trying to feel my way in the fog, the air cleared and the massive storm was behind me. The desert dryness ensured smooth clean roads for the rest of the trip and I zoomed along at 75+ MPH until I reached my destination in Parker.

The Blue Water Casino is in yet another small town and the first thing I noticed when I got out of the car was the incredibly bad smell in the air. Not quite phosphorous, but something like rotting vegetables. Like the Eagles song, "the warm smell of calitas", perhaps? Who knows? All I knew is that I couldn't believe people were just walking around like there was nothing going on! I high-tailed it into the casino where the rotting smell was replaced by stale cigarette smoke. Yay me. It was about 4:30pm at this point and I was really hoping that a game was going on, but no such luck. The poker room, a small sad affair of 6 poker tables stuck in the back of the casino floor, was manned by two dealers who were just waiting around for a game to start. The tables were all covered and there wasn't a single name on the board, so they'd be waiting for a while. I had just driven for 4 hours through torrential snow, wind, rain and fog and I'd be damned if I wasn't going to play *something*! I offered the dealers to play Chinese poker for fun while they waited but they hadn't heard of the game. I wandered off onto the casino floor, looking to at least play a shoe of $5 blackjack. There were two blackjack tables open with dealers and not a single person sitting at them. Not a one. That's at least 12 open seats, got it? This is important to the story. I sidled up to a table, got a stack of red chips and placed a $5 chip on two spots, intending to play two hands at a time. I like playing double hands at blackjack because it feels like I'm smoothing out my variance, even though I know it's only an illusion. I figure, hey, if I get a natural 16 on the first hand, I could always come back with a blackjack on the second hand! As I put down my two red chips, the dealer pointed at the bets and said, "Sir, you have to play double the minimum if you want to play two hands." I was incredulous. I looked around the casino floor and maybe 50 people were milling around the slots. Nary a single person was playing table games. Not one. Now I realize why casinos wouldn't want you to play minimum bets on two hands; it keeps higher rollers from playing the game if you're taking up a seat playing minimums. But there was no one playing! No one waiting. Not a single person interested, not to mention there were 10 other seats available. I pointed this out to the dealer by saying, "Really? There's no one playing!". He re-iterated his ruling and it pissed me off so much that I immediately asked for a color-up and cashed out. I wanted to play, but now the dealer's stupidity cost the casino money and he cost himself possible tips. The right thing to do in this scenario would be to call the pit boss, three feet behind him, and ask him to waive the requirement. I'm sure he would have agreed. As I passed by the blackjack table on the way to the door, I couldn't help putting in a little dig to the dealer. "Sorry guy, but you just lost business." Sure, he's not going to lose sleep over it, but the pit boss who was chatting with him about the situation might feel otherwise.

I made my way over to Blythe, CA to go to a small poker room called Bruce's Bar and Casino but before I did I stopped into a local Wal-Mart to get an iPhone Charger for the car. I forgot to bring the one I already owned and I needed it badly. I ended up spending $50 bucks on one but it had the added feature of simultaneously charging the phone and also providing the cable to play the iPhone through the car's AUX port. Still a rip-off.

It was another 90 minutes to get to Blythe and by that time the sun had dropped and it was night-time. As I pulled up to the bar at around 6PM, I was surprised to see that it was closed! I looked at my iPhone and discovered that it was actually 5PM. In the middle of my drive, having gone about 40 miles west, I had changed time zones! The iPhone has the wonderful feature of automatically showing the correct time for the time zone depending on your physical location. The posted time for the poker room was 6PM, which was confirmed when I called the bar a few weeks ago in preparation for this trip. So I figured I'd wait an hour in town. No biggie. Blythe is a bit skeevy, especially in this location. I had dinner at a local Mexican place (it sucked, surprisingly) and went back. At 6PM, still closed. Hmmm... I walked over to the entrance to the "poker room", a small back room affair with two tables as far as I could see through the window. The sign posted said 7PM. Damn. I drove into town looking for something to do and stumbled on a movie theater. Nothing playing that I wanted to see but they did have a sizeable video arcade. I cashed $10 of quarters and re-lived happy memories playing Star Wars, Time Crisis 2, Ms. Pacman and Galaga. Oh, Galaga...

I returned at about 7PM local time and it was still closed! What kind of bar doesn't open at 7PM?!?! Even if it is a Monday. Don't people drink on Mondays? There was a help wanted sign for waitresses needed and I called the number hoping to speak to the manager to find out what was going on. A guy answered and when I asked why the place was closed he said, "Uh, my dad's not home now but the bar should be open in about 45 minutes." Yeah, I wasn't waiting in this skeevy hell-hole for another 45 minutes. It was getting late and I needed to be heading on down the road. I was supposed to stay in Blythe that night but I ditched the hotel room and ran down to El Centro, about an hour south on the Mexican border. I needed to hit another bar game down there called Tommy's Saloon and Casino and I figured by the time I got there, the game should be in full swing.

For the record, I'm recording Bruce's Bar as an official visit. I did everything I could. 'Nuff Said. However, I couldn't get a chip and there doesn't seem to be one online that I can easily buy. So if there's anyone out there with a $1 Bruce's Bar and Casino chip from Blythe, CA, please contact me for a quick and easy sale. Thank you for listening. We now return you to your regular story.

I got into El Centro, CA at about 9pm. El Centro is a border town on the Mexican border and it's as rough looking as it sounds. A small strip of stores and lots of tough looking locals hanging around. I parked in front of the bar and went through the double doors. It was a complete dive. A creaky wooden floor with a worn wooden bar on one side and a beaten up pool table on the other. The three patrons drinking at the bar were, surprising to me, white, as were the couple playing pool. But they all looked like they were mean and ready for trouble. I walked to the back room which had a low wall making it visible from the bar area. There was a table cramped in the space with a "cage", consisting of a spanish speaking woman named Maria making change for players and two Mexican dudes dealing the game. The game had 7 players at the moment and they were playing $1-$3 nlhe. I bought in for two and followed the pace of play for 30 minutes. It was an aggressive game, with $17 PF raises the norm and 4 or 5 callers each time. Pots swung wildly back and forth and the hands being shown down were, not surprisingly, crap. Every so often, I'd be able to limp cheaply into a pot, so I took chances on hands that would enable me to double through. I had some luck on suited connectors and gap cards and built my stack steadily to $320, not showing down even once. By this time, I'd been there about an hour and was chatting amiably with the locals who, while very tough looking, opened up easily enough. I asked how long it was to Yuma, my next destination, and that got the table talking about what I was doing there and why I was traveling. Everything seemed fine.

And then I was dealt A8 on the button. It limped to me, I called and 6 players saw a flop. 2 4 5 . I had two overs, the nut flush draw and a wheel gutshot draw. An early position player, a white guy around 30 with a yellow hoodie and a tatoo near his neck that was partially concealed, bet out $15. Three people called and it was an easy call for me. The turn was the 7. Yellow Hoodie bet out $25 and it folded to a Mexican kid in seat 3. He called and I raised to $100. My feeling was that Yellow Hoodie might have bet the flop on the King Flush draw and made it, meaning he might be willing to pay me off on my raise. My feelings, I thought, were confirmed when he agonized over the call but finally made it. Once he made the call, I figure I'm getting totally pizzaid. Mexican kid wisely retreated. I have about $215 left in my stack and the river comes, the 6 ! I almost had to look twice but I really did have the straight flush. The unbeatable hand. Yellow Hoodie checks and I try to figure out how much a King Flush would call. The pot is about $280 or so, so I figure $100 oughta do it. I slide out a silo of red chips and announce a $100 bet. Yellow Hoodie instantly goes all-in. Wow! I instantly call and he tables 3 6 with a flourish. I quietly table A 8 and the table goes nuts! Yellow Hoodie looks like he got kicked in the gut and all the color drains from his face, only to be replaced by the flush of red. Flushed Face = Angry. I stack my chips for the dealer and he matches them up and I drag the biggest pot of the trip with straight flush over straight flush. Looking back, I really can't believe he called my re-raise on the turn. He had flopped the joint straight but got married to it. He put me on a flush draw on the turn (blocking raise on the button? Really?) and must have thought that he was with the angels when he spiked the 6 on the river. Whoops!

Yellow Hoodie angrily went to the ATM in the bar and got $100 and cashed it for 5 stacks of white. On the first hand, and with steam pouring out of his ears, he went all-in on the flop with a pair of 5's and a 3 kicker. He was outdone by pocket Jacks. He went back to the ATM, this time with $200. By that point I had seen enough. This guy was going to get his money back one way or another and I didn't want that to by from a knife in my back. I had $630 in front of me, that they knew of, and $2000 in my wallet that they didn't. It was time to take the high road. Without saying a word, I cashed out and walked to the front door, looking over my shoulder as I did. Yellow Hoodie was still spewing chips and I jumped in my car and locked the door quickly. I started her up, backed out into the street and quickly came to the corner and turned right.

Then I saw it. Flashing lights in my rear-view mirror. It was like in the movie "The Cooler" (Great freakin' movie, btw) where Bernie and Natalie get away from the casino with a boatload of money only to be stopped by a cop who works for the casino trying to get the money back. Yeah, it was a cop who stopped me. I pulled over and put both hands on the steering wheel. He ambled up and I lowered my window.

"How are you tonight?," he asked.
"Not too bad, how are you?"
"Ok. Looks like you made one of them Florida stops at that stop sign. You didn't even slow the car down" (For the record, my rental car had Florida plates).
"I did. Oh, sorry, I didn't notice."
"You from around here?"
"No, just visiting. I'm from New York actually. The car's a rental"
"Lemme see your driver's license"

I handed it over and once he determined that I hadn't been drinking and I really wasn't local, he let me go. I was grateful he wasn't trying to rob me and I made it back onto the highway and went straight to Yuma. Do not pass go. Do collect your winnings. And for god's sake, make a complete stop at stop signs!

As I was driving along the highway, the wind started to pick up and dust swirls were dancing along the highway. Every so often, I big gust would blow so much dust on the road that the lane markers became invisible and visibility briefly dropped to zero. And I mean, nothing. As a result, we all slowed down (again!). After a few minutes of this, the dust become more frequent and I was driving through a full fledged dust storm. What the hell?!? The weather in Arizona is W-E-I-R-D. I looked up ahead and noticed a car in the smack middle of the road with flashing lights out his back window and two yellow arrows pointing to either side of him. I didn't understand why he'd be driving in the middle of the road when I realized it was a government vehicle who purpose is to mark the middle of the road for drivers along this stretch of road where dust storms are frequent. It was a helpful safety gauge. After 5 miles of guiding us, the dust storms faded and the government pacer car drove across the median to the other side of the road to help a new group of cars going in the opposite direction. I guess you learn something new every day.

I pulled into the Quechan Casino parking lot in Yuma (actually Winterhaven, CA but close enough), got a room for the night and crashed, hard. The hotel was actually quite beautiful but I had absolutely zero interest in checking it out. I was too tired and exhausted from the days's hellish activities. I had been through fog, blizzard, monsoon rain, a dust storm thought I was going to drop off a cliff, got stopped by a cop, saw frightening lightning displays in a farmer's field and had to run out of a wild west saloon for fear of being stabbed in the neck for my poker winnings. I deserved my rest.

More to come...


VictoriaPandora said...

Wow, you are a great storyteller.
I found your blog from a google news alert link I set up weeks ago about that Angel Valley incident in Sedona.

I lived in Sedona for six years and I have had many days such as the one you describe!

I even spun my car out on ice my honeymoon night and had to hole up in Seligman.

Picture this, it's your honeymoon, you're headed back to Sedona from Vegas. (Yes, I had the same thoughts as you, "Why the hell am I on the road in this?")You get a crap motel room, but at least you are not dead. Cats meow at the motel room door all night nearly drowning out the weather channel which you watch in rapt attention. You go to peek out a window to see if it's still snowing and there's an EMU staring back at you.Eyes like saucers from outter space.

I am a failry sane person but for a split second I really thought we may have died in the spin out and we were in some sort of jokers purgatory, haha.

And that's just one day, there were many. You nailed it Arizona is WEIRD!

Now I am gonna have to read the other parts of your story:)

Memphis MOJO said...

You had me R-E-A-L-L-Y nervous when I read of your driving in the snow storm on the curvy mountain roads!!

Good read. Have you thought about writing a book of all your adventures at some point?

HighOnPoker said...

Great post. Vivid storytelling. It's all top notch. Keep up the good work, J.