The bleary-eyed young couple practically climbed over us to get into the elevator. I guess they didn’t notice that we were trying to haul 200 pounds of luggage through the door.
“What was their hurry?” asked Kris.
I could think of at least two possibilities, but kept one of them to myself. “I’m sure they’ve been up all night and need some sleep.”
We exited the elevator lobby and entered the cavernous space that lies between any two points in the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. The atmosphere in the casino was markedly different than it had been just a few hours earlier. When we’d traversed it at 1 a.m., there was barely room to pass through the thousands of revelers who jockeyed for positions at the slot machines, gaming tables and bars. The noise was deafening. Now, at 6:30 a.m., a few of those same souls wandered about in stunned silence. A handful of new arrivals, freshly arisen early birds armed with coffee and the morning newspaper, paused to try their luck at the slots. Otherwise, the place was deserted.
I was, for the briefest moment before I came to my senses, tempted to feed another dollar into one of the machines. The prospect of the second phase of this vacation pulled me back from the brink. It had been a long time – at least 20 years – since we made a genuine all-American road trip. There was a lot of ground to cover today, Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon by way of Hoover Dam. I’ve spoken to many friends and coworkers about their trips to Vegas, and I’ve asked them all the same question. “Did you go to Hoover Dam?” It’s a question that can be answered two ways – yes or no. I’ve received two variations on one of those possibilities – “No,” or an uncomprehending, quizzical stare. Never heard a “yes,” which is a great mystery to me. Hoover Dam is way cooler than a slot machine.
Kris waited with the luggage under the hotel’s portico while I fetched the rental car from the parking garage. I had requested a mid-sized Jeep SUV knowing that we’d need some cargo room later when we moved Wells into the dorm at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Clutching keys I’d picked up at the rental counter the previous afternoon, I walked about a mile – at least it seemed that far – to the hotel’s parking garage. When I finally found space #38 on the fifth level, it was occupied by a monster truck – a Jeep Commander that looked remarkably like a Hummer. It was menacing. Deep, dark blue with windows tinted black, a chrome grill that looked like shark’s teeth and tires that bulged obscenely from the fenders. Children would cry when they saw us coming.
I hadn’t driven anything so big and unwieldy since a memorable white-knuckled trip through the narrow streets of Philadelphia in a 20-foot U-Haul truck many years ago. I climbed aboard and sat in the captain’s chair, adjusting things to my liking before backing carefully out of the parking space. Something started beeping. The tone grew more urgent as I crept backward, and ceased when I shifted into drive. It dawned on me that this beast had a radar warning system, lessening the chance that the driver would inadvertently crush an innocent Volkswagen hiding in the blind spot.
I found it remarkable that the parking garage at MGM was free. It seemed so out of character for Las Vegas, where even the free drinks came at a steep price. By the time I’d driven in spiraling circles down five levels, I was so dizzy that I took a wrong turn and was forced to go all the way around the block. Going around the block in Vegas is like driving the periphery of our home town, and it took ages. Finally, I pulled onto the Hotel’s entrance road and, using all of the dumb luck that had otherwise remained dormant throughout our time in the city, chose the correct lane – from at least twenty candidates – to take me to Kris.
“Where have you been?” Kris asked. “And what is this thing? I thought a pimp was checking me out.”
“It’s a Jeep. I guess they upgraded us from the little one I asked for.”
“It’s so…huge! Does it cost more? Is it a camper, too? I thought we were staying in hotels.”
As big as it was, it still couldn’t hold all of our luggage behind the rear seat. I don’t know how the designers managed to use the space so poorly. Our Subaru can hold more stuff. And this Jeep didn’t even have 4-wheel drive, so there’s even more points in favor of the Subaru.
“What kind of gas mileage do you think it gets?” asked Kris.
“I don’t know…maybe ten or eleven,” I said. Out of curiosity, I popped the hood. Standing on tip-toes, I peered into the engine compartment. A massive empty space allowed me to see the pavement below. Several people could have stood upright in there, feet firmly on the ground – without ducking. “Look, it’s the Grand Canyon.”
“Where’s the engine?” asked Kris.
“Up there,” I said, pointing to a tiny little motor sticking out of the upper rear wall of the compartment. “It’s only a six-cylinder. I think we might get actually get twelve miles to the gallon.” Actually , there was more empty space under the hood than there was in the luggage area. I began thinking about how one could fashion a shelf in there.
We exited the hotel’s private expressway and made a u-turn on Tropicana Avenue, heading east into the blinding sun. “I have to make a stop,” I said.
“Already?” asked Kris. “You didn’t even have coffee yet. Maybe you should talk to the doctor…”
“Not for that. I’m going to pick up a GPS unit.”
“At the main rental car office,” I said. “They don’t stock them at the hotels.”
“Well, that’s kind of a pain. Do you know where it is?”
“Sort of…but it would be easy if we had a GPS. That’s why I got it.”
It turned out that the rental office was just a block off our intended route, so the detour was brief. I traded my signature for the GPS unit, installed it in the Jeep and programmed it to take us to the Hoover Dam.
“Can it tell you where to get a decent cup of coffee?” asked Kris. She had been warned by her well-traveled brother about a lack of decent coffee in the western United States, and she was starting to get a little edgy. “I really need some good coffee.”
“I’m sure we’ll pass a hundred places before we get on the highway.” I said. “Look…there’s a McDonalds – how about that?”
We drove block after block without seeing so much as a Starbucks. I thought those things were everywhere, not that I’ve ever been to one. The GPS advised that we’d soon be turning onto the highway, and Kris grew desperate. “Here! Right here! Turn! Burger King – I can live with that.”
I pulled into the deserted parking lot, entered the equally empty drive-thru lane and stopped at the menu board. “Do you want anything else?” I asked.
“Just coffee,” said Kris. “A big one.”
A garbled voice came over the loudspeaker. “Orning. welc…urger…ing…oment, please.”
I don’t know exactly what the voice said, but I got the impression that he or she wasn’t ready for the sudden rush of business and was asking me to wait. A few moments later, I heard some more noise. Detecting a rising inflection at the end of it, I assumed it was safe to submit my request.
Speaking slowly and deliberately I said, “Two large regular coffees, please. That’s it…”
From the response I picked out just three words – “…six…drive…window” – but I got the message and stepped on the gas.
Simultaneously, the person in the passenger seat went into a violent, thrashing conniption. “Get the turbo! Get the turbo!!” Kris shouted. If she hadn’t been wearing her seatbelt, her head would have dented the roof. “You didn’t ask for the turbo! I have to have TURBO! AHHHH” I’ve only seen her display such emotion during football games, which is why I retreat to my office when the Patriots are playing.
“You said you didn’t want anything else. What the heck is a turbo?”
“It’s their special coffee. I can’t drink their regular coffee – it’s disgusting! I have to have the turbo. Go back and tell him…”
I continued forward and pulled up to the window as Kris carried on. Through the glass I could see a man struggling to put a lid on a tall coffee cup, a task made difficult by the fact that he only had one arm. He turned in our direction, opened the window and passed me a cup of coffee. “A dollar eighty-six, please,” he said.
“Is it the turbo?” Kris shouted.
“No, maam. Did you want a Turbo-Joe?”
“Yes. I have to have turbo!” Kris’s voice actually echoed in the cavernous Jeep.
I interjected. “Actually, I asked for two cups.”
“I’m sorry – I couldn’t really hear you on the intercom. So you want two cups of Turbo-Joe, sir?“
Kris leaned over and shouted, “Do you have any cinnamon rolls?”
“Yes, maam. So that’s two Turbo-Joes and a cinnamon roll?”
“Large! Large turbos!” yelled Kris.
“Actually, I’ll just keep this regular coffee,” I said. “So it’s just one turbo and a cinnamon roll. Large…”
“I’ll be glad to take that one back and get you a Turbo-Joe.”
“No thanks, it’s fine,” I assured the man, not wanting to be more of a burden. I sipped the coffee to seal the deal. To me, it tasted like it was supercharged.
A minute later I pulled out of the parking lot. The soothing voice of the GPS unit said, “Turn right in point one miles.” Kris was sipping her way to caffeine nirvana. I had a hunk of the family-sized cinnamon roll stuck to my fingers, bits of sugar coating dangling from my mustache, a burning hot cup of non-turbo coffee between my legs, and a beast of a vehicle at my command.
What more could one ask for? The road trip had begun…