Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Best Western/Swiss Chalet Inn & Suites (Pecos, Texas)

PECOS, TEXAS -- Suffice it to say, my wife and I were surprised to discover such a big, beautiful hotel just off of I-20 in this dusty little city on the west Texas plains and, when we asked if it was a conference hotel, were told by the clerk that it was not but that many people asked the same question. Our room was big and comfortable and included a number of nice features, including sinks in and outside of the bathroom, a microwave, and a refrigerator.

By the time we woke up Monday morning and started getting ready to leave, we were very pleased and I almost posted a 5-star review here and on Yahoo Local (my inclination being to ignore the first of the annoyances listed below). We did experience a couple of odd things at the the Best Western/Swiss Chalet Inn & Suites, however, which made our stay their less than perfect.

* We were pleased to discover the place had a government rate of $80. That seemed a little steep for Pecos but fine for this hotel so we accepted it. The desk clerk went on to tell us, however, that she had to charge us an additional $10 because my wife was going to have someone else in the room with her (i.e., her husband -- me -- who also has a government ID card). Pretty bizarre and something I have never experienced elsewhere.

* Breakfast looked very promising and the hotel has a large area set up for these purposes and a nice selection of food. When we went to eat, however, we were greeted with NO coffee, NO forks, and NO napkins. We had to specifically ask the slow-moving attendant to make more coffee. We then watched as she shambled out of the kitchen every few minutes to deposit a couple of mugs or stir the food in the serving dishes, oblivious to the fact that we and other guests were eating our bacon with spoons and had no napkins. A manager eventually showed up, but she didn't notice any of these deficiencies either -- and counseled the attendant only about some other things that seemed to be affecting her own breakfast!

Overall, the Best Western/Swiss Chalet Inn & Suites has a lot of promise, and maybe its staff and management will get their act together and make the place a success, but they are not there yet. As always, keep your eye on this space for updates (which, as always, may include direct feedback from the reviewed establishment, which I not just allow but encourage).

Sunday, March 28, 2010

International UFO Museum and Research Center (Roswell, N.M.)

ROSWELL, NEW MEXICO -- A special treat for Diane and I during our roadtrip home from Las Vegas was the opportunity to stop at the UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, New Mexico.

Alright, so the exhibits are a little melodramatic and at times a bit redundant, but the place really is a labor of love and its organizers have done a great job with it. And the attached research library is a bona fide public service to anyone interested in any sort of in-depth study of the subject.

This latter feature was all the more useful to me, of course, in that I actually did do some research while at the center, for my upcoming book "Texas Confidential: Sex, Scandal, Murder, and Mayhem in the Lone Star State."

Yes, the 1947 UFO incident in Roswell did, in fact have a Texas connection! In short, the remains of the craft -- whether it was an alien spacecraft or merely a wrecked weather balloon -- were transported to Carswell Army Air Field in Fort Worth. And the opportunity to event peripherally include this famous incident in my own book is too much for me to resist.

The staff at the center were friendly and very helpful and I am looking forward to working with them as I move ahead with Texas Confidential and other projects.

On the Road Home from Las Vegas

It does not take much to remind me why driving cross-country is the best way to travel whenever possible, and the drive from Las Vegas across Nevada, briefly down into California, and on into Arizona, New Mexico, and finally Texas has some especially beautiful stretches. Highpoints include the Alpine stretch around Flagstaff, Arizona, and the painted desert in the far eastern edge of the state; the mountainous valley in which Albuquerque sits; and the austere, nearly empty deep desert north of Roswell, with massive Mount Capitane sitting off to the west for a very long time during the drive south down NM-285.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Teabagged in Searchlight, Nevada

SEARCHLIGHT, NEVADA -- My wife and I had the unpleasant experience of being stuck in a traffic jam deep in the desert east of Las Vegas, Nevada, as a result of a Tea Party rally taking place just outside of the little town of Searchlight. During our slow drive past thousands of cars parked alongside both sides of the road, we had the opportunity to get a good look at the Teabaggers.

Restaurant Advisory: Wendy's (Lake Havasu, Arizona)

LAKE HAVASU, ARIZONA -- Avoid the Wendy's at the exit for Lake Havasu off of I-40 in Arizona! While the employees are in no way unpleasant, they are almost completely indifferent to doing their jobs properly. Suffice it to say, a fast-food establishment that can't bother to get their fries hot has nothing going for it -- and one that tells customers that the fries are hot and fresh and then gives them cold ones instead, as the people at this Wendy's did to me, should simply be avoided. Also, we had to struggle for cup lids that fit and specifically talk to FOUR separate employees before we could get what we needed.

There are plenty of other places to eat at this intersection. Choose one of them.

Staples (North Las Vegas, Nevada)

NORTH LAS VEGAS, NEVADA -- Had a perfect experience at this Staples in North Las Vegas, which both completed three jobs for me in just 45 minutes and mailed me my flash drive when it accidentally got left behind.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Think Twice About 'the Deuce'

LAS VEGAS -- I am currently in town covering the GAMA Trade Show for some of the various publications I represent. The place I'm staying is more than two miles down the Strip from Bally's, where the trade show is being held, and I have thus had to figure out how to get to-and-from there each day.

God bless Las Vegas, the city does have a couple of different sorts of public transportation available -- a monorail and "the Deuce," a bus that runs up and down the Las Vegas Boulevard -- and I eagerly considered or tried both of them.

I had to reject the monorail almost immediately, both because the nearest station was the better part of a mile away and because of its cost -- $5 for a one-way trip! While it might be be fun to ride once or twice, it is not economical or generally convenient and is really nothing more than an expensive novelty.

The bus looked much more promising, especially as it has some good price options: $3 for a one-way trip, $7 for 24-hour unlimited use, and $15 for a three-day pass. It is often so crowded, however, that it is impossible to even get on it! And, thanks to advances in scooter technology, all-too-frequently some fat slob holds up operations by trying to maneuver his rented Rascal onto the bus, delaying things once again two stops later when we wants to ride off the bus.

In the end, driving was what worked best for me. The trip was quick if I generally stayed off the Strip and parking at Bally's was convenient and free.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Live from the GAMA Trade Show!

LAS VEGAS -- I am currently on the ground at the GAMA Trade Show, which I am covering for my own Skirmisher Online Gaming Magazine, Skirmisher Update, and new "d-Infinity" quarterly magazine, along with Brutarian magazine (which runs "The X-Phile," a parnormal column by yours truly).

If you are interesting in keeping track of or commenting on what I am doing at GTS, go to http://skirmisher.com/forum/index.php?topic=2105.0. And if you are going to be at the show, reply to the post at the above link so we can meet and chat a little face-to-face!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Travel Advisory: Picacho Market, Picacho, Arizona

Avoid this gas station at Exit 212 off of I-10 in Picacho, Arizona, about halfway between Tucson and Phoenix! The fact that their gas cost about 10 cents a gallon more than anywhere else we stopped in the previous two days was bad enough -- but then, when I went to the bathroom to wash up, I discovered that it was equipped with a coin-operated lock that required a quarter to open!

I am pretty sure that making paying customers pay again to use the toilet and wash their hands is illegal in some states, and certainly should be illegal in all of them. And, at the very least, it is sleazy. Stay away from this one; no sense giving your money to jerks.

On the Road: Van Horn, Texas

VAN HORN, TEXAS (March 18, 2010) -- Heading west out of Fort Stockton late in the afternoon while en route to Las Vegas, we were suprised at how few amenities appeared over the ensuing 100-or-so miles; even at the intersection with I-20, where we had imagined there would be a couple of motels and maybe a decent truckstop restaurant, there was literally nothing but roadway. The twinkling lights of Van Horn, Texas, a little crossroads community of about 2,500 people, thus appeared very welcomingly on the darkened horizon ahead of us, and we were pleased to find plenty in the way of places to stay and eat, as follows.

Chuy's Restaurant: This Mexican restaurant was recommended to us by my friend Karen Russell Holmes, a native of Van Horn, and she did not steer us wrong. I ordered the Catfish Picata, nice chunks of fish sauteed with onions, tomatoes, and jalapenos, with rice and beans on the side. My wife, however, ordered the Pork Asado.

"Oh my God! You've got to try this," she said after tasting it.

Humoring her, I tasted it, and was stunned. In short, it was very literally one of the best things I have ever tasted, immediately moving into the top 10 of favorite things I have eaten. (Prompted by this wonderful dish and inspired by a recent article in Texas Monthly magazine, I am starting my own "Texas Bucket List," and "Eating the Pork Asado at Chuy's in Van Horn" is on it.)

Knights Inn and Suites: This place on the I-10 Business bypass was reasonably priced at just $45 plus tax and had nice, clean rooms and good proximity to restaurants and other services. We could not, however, get an Internet connection! For some people this may be irrelevant, and for them or the people for whom the computer in the lobby would be sufficient I can recommend this place without qualifications. If you need to be online with your own computer or for any length of time, however, you should pick one of the many other places to stay in Va Horn.

On the Road to Las Vegas

My wife Diane and I headed out the afternoon of March 18 on an 11-day roadtrip from Canyon Lake Texas, through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada to Las Vegas where we plan to spend a week; and then back via a different route that will take us, among other places, through Roswell, New Mexico. En route, I will be doing legwork for my newest book project, Texas Confidential: Sex, Scandal, Murder, and Mayhem in the Lone Star State. Most of the coming posts to this site over the next couple of weeks will be devoted to the good, the bad, the ugly, and the interesting on our 2,700-mile roundtrip.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Driving the Devil’s Backbone

Ranch Road 32 — also known as “the Devil’s Backbone,” a name it shares with the rugged ridgeline along which its runs — is a strange little stretch of road that somehow feels more isolated than it should and which is almost Gothic in its features. Ancient farmsteads lay in the woods and fields along its length, some clearly occupied, some obviously abandoned, and others apparently somewhere in between. Old model trucks, some perfectly restored and others rusting away, sit in yards and meadows. Twisting lanes, a few with appropriately eerie names, such as Purgatory Road, lead off to the north and south, their mysteries concealed almost immediately behind bends.

The Devil’s Backbone runs about 23 miles from where it begins at the intersection with Highway 281 just west of the Comal County line near Blanco, to where it ends at the junction with RR 12, a little bit south of Wimberley. Having a name at all in a state where a disproportionate number of roads are known only by numbers is distinction enough, to be sure, and having a name straight out of a Western is at least twice as good.

That Western ambience is not just a coincidence, of course, and cowboys once ran cattle along the Devil’s Backbone and enjoyed the same striking views that reward travelers to this day. Sections of this drive are, indeed, very beautiful, and at several places drivers can see the land descend dramatically from the edge of the escarpment and into rolling planes to the north. A picnic area in the eastern half of the drive is a good place to pull over for a break and enjoy this view.

Other scenic highpoints include haunting views of the Little Blanco River, straight as an arrow at some points, flanked by immense cypresses, and — being completely dry — appearing more like some long abandoned road than any sort of waterway.

This drive will also be very enlightening for anyone who has ever wondered why Comal County is shaped the way it is, and they will have a much better sense for this after driving this route. The diagonal, northeastern boundary of Comal County runs parallel to the Devil’s Backbone and, following the topography of the region, essentially has one of its edges formed by it.

Another recommended stop along RR 32, located about halfway along its length and just a little to the north of it on Fischer Store Road, is the original family Fischer store itself, which has operated off-and-on at the site for more than a century-and-a-half. Today, the long, corrugated metal building is run as both a museum and an antique shop by Charlene Fischer, whose great-grandfather opened the original general store on the site in 1853 (the current structure was built in 1902).

“There were cattle drives through here,” Charlene said of her ancestors’ decision to establish a store on the Devil’s Backbone. “It took so much land to run cattle that everyone was very spread out and it was a fairly large trade area at the time.” Because of this, she said, the store had two large warehouses for storing inventory, one of which can still stands today.

Back in the old days, Charlene says, driving the Devil’s Backbone was very tough, and Model Ts had to run up the steepest slopes backwards because they were not powerful enough to go up them forwards without overheating. It’s a somewhat easier drive today, of course, and a bit of an excursion into times past in Comal County.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when exploring the Devil’s Backbone:

* At several points, such as near the little Blanco River, there are good places to pull over, park, and walk around. Watch out, however, for anyone who might be driving too fast down RR 32 if you do get out of your car or slow down to enjoy the scenery!

* There are few amenities available along RR 32, so be sure to take any snacks or drinks you might want to have with you. And, as it is a relatively isolated area, be sure to have a cell phone with you as well if you own one (reception does not appear to be a problem along most of the road).