"I'm dying to get to Vegas, but there's no way I'm dying to get to Vegas!" She was in her early twenties, pigtails beneath a stripper cowboy hat. She was remarkably attractive as she delivered this statement to who I presumed was her boyfriend, also in his early twenties and heavily tattooed.
As they passed me, I looked up at the counter. On the wall behind the gate agent, it said flight 1178. Beneath that: Las Vegas/Austin. Beneath that: Delayed.
I picked up my backpack, and walked to the counter. "How long has the flight been delayed?" I'd been reading a book and listening to Copeland on my iPod, and hadn't noticed any announcements.
"It looks like 9:30 tonight, at the earliest," she said. It was 5pm.
"Woah. Why?" I said.
"There's severe weather all around McCarran Airport," she said. "They're not letting any flights in or out right now. She spun her computer display to face me. What looked like thirty or forty airplane-shaped icons moved in a circular pattern around Las Vegas, which was covered in red.
I did some math in my head.
"I think I'll just drive," I said. "Can I get my bag back?"
"Sure," she said, "did you want me to refund your ticket?"
"No," I said, "It's one of those 'change it anytime' things, and I'll be back and forth between here and Vegas a lot for the next few weeks."
"Oh?" She said, as she typed my name and claim number into the computer, "why?"
"I'm playing in the World Series of Poker," I said.
"Really? Do you know Chris Moneymaker?"
I laughed. I hear this as often as I once heard, "Do you know" whoever happened to be a well-known actor at that particular moment.
"Actually, I do." Then, before she could ask the obligatory follow-up: "He's a really nice guy, and a much better player than he gets credit for."
"Okay, Mr. Wheaton, you're going to head out to the . . ." she stopped, and looked at my claim ticket, then back to me. She wrinkled her forehead and squinted. "Where did you go to high school?"
"La Crescenta," I said.
"God, you look so familiar," she said. "Anyway, you go to the Southwest Baggage office, and talk to Nina. She'll get you your bag, and you'll be on your -- Stand By Me!"
I chuckled and nodded. "Yeah, that's me."
"I love that movie!" She said. She turned to the other gate agent. "He was Gordie in Stand By Me!"
He looked up at me, and blinked. "Hey! I love that movie. It's nice to meet you." I shook his hand. "So you're not waiting to fly, huh?"
"I can drive there in the same amount of time, and while I normally enjoy sitting in airports drinking beer, I'd rather just get on my way and know that I won't be rolling in really late if it's delayed again, or cancelled."
A woman who had walked up next to me during this conversation said, "Hey, can I get a ride with you?"
Before I could think of the most diplomatic way of saying, "No fucking way, I don't even know who you are," she smiled and said, "I'm just kidding." Then to the gate agent, "I think I'll just go out tomorrow. Can you change my reservation?"
While they worked out her travel plan, a line of agitated travelers grew behind us. I thanked the gate agents for their help. They both wished me good luck, and I headed out to collect my bag, my car, and get on the freeway.
On my way out of the gate, I passed Stripper Cowboy Hat, who was on her cell phone. ". . . huge storms that could tear the plane apart like Lost. There's no way I'm doing that!" She paused. "Well, I don't know. I guess we'll just have to wait and see what happens. I need a Cosmo." Heavily-tattooed looked like he'd heard it all before as he pulled out a PSP and waited. I recalled a T-shirt I saw in a truck stop somewhere a few years ago: "No matter how hot she is, someone, somewhere, is sick of her shit" When I was a safe distance away, I let myself giggle. I was glad I wouldn't be sitting on the same plane as this sure-to-be-hysterical traveler, and thirty minutes later I was on the road, heading for Sin City.
The full moon rose to my right as the sun sank beneath the horizon on my left. The road was wide open the entire way, and I had a great drive across the Mojave desert. As my friend Ryan observed last week, the drive from Los Angeles to Vegas is "the perfect length for a mini-roadtrip, long enough to feel you’re actually getting somewhere, short enough that nobody gets restless in the car."
I made great time, and didn't hit any traffic until Stateline, where the Nevada DOT is taking away one lane for fifteen miles or so at a time on the weekends until the end of the year, or something crazy like that. But I didn't care, as my car slowed to a crawl for a half hour. I could see the beam of light shooting upward from the Luxor on the horizon, and I was less than 24 hours away from playing in my first WSOP event this year. What's to get upset about?
I finally rolled into my hotel's parking garage around 11. I figured that if my flight did go out at 9, I would have saved thirty minutes if I'd just waited in the airport, but now I had a car, I was entirely sober, and I'll be honest: the drive across the desert is important. It helps me leave Los Angeles in the dust, literally and figuratively, and lets me switch my brains from "home" mode into full-time writer mode. (Yes, even though I'm ostensibly here to play poker, this place is such a wealth of characters and incredible situations, I am always The Writer when I'm in Las Vegas, and I'm really cool with that.)
I got out of my car into the 90 degree night. I grabbed my bag out of my trunk, threw my backpack over my shoulder, and walked into the lobby. Check-in was a breeze, and I discovered -- to my absolute delight -- that I've somehow ended up in a swanky room that I'd never get for myself if I'd booked my travel and accommodations. Woo! Go Poker Stars!
After I unpacked and spent some time admiring the view out of my window, I headed back downstairs to get something to eat, and walk a few laps around the hotel -- I started the day at a wedding in Solvang, so I'd actually spent close to six hours sitting in the car by this time, and I needed some sort of exercise.
On my way through the casino, just after midnight on a Monday morning when the weekend travelers had gone home, I noticed that Las Vegas can be an intensely lonely town when you're here without someone, which is incredible, considering the nonstop party that this place is. There are people everywhere, but it can be like standing in a torrential downpour, and somehow not getting wet at all. I'm glad that I'm here with PokerStars, who are really like an extended family to me, so I don't have to experience those moments of lonely isolation that are so common in the flashing lights beneath the ever-present haze of smoke.
I ended up walking a few laps around the casino before I returned to my room and ordered a bowl of soup from room service. On my way up, I passed a middle-aged couple arguing in front of an ATM. It was clearly not their first trip to the cash machine that day. I walked past them quickly, and kept my head down.
I finally fell asleep around 2:30, and woke up every two hours until 8:30 when my breakfast arrived. I drank a cup of coffee, and looked out my window. In the distance, I could see the Rio. My first event in the 2006 World Series of Poker was just a few hours away.
The story continues at the official PokerStars blog . . .