Escape From New Jersey

When it’s 24 degrees and windy in the Texas Panhandle, stepping out of the car becomes a major decision. How badly do you need that bathroom?

If you’ve never been on the Midwest plains in winter, you may not appreciate what “windy” means. The wind tears through your skin and freezes your soul.

I’d planned on doing this a couple weeks sooner, but owing to a work obligation, it ended up being the second week in January that I made my escape and my first cross-country drive in a few years. Those weeks make a difference as winter gets underway.

When I left, a storm was threatening to dump snow as far out as St. Louis the following day, so the fun kicked off with a banzai run to Missouri to beat the storm. Later, as I approached Flagstaff, another snowstorm loomed; I raced to get past the area, thought I’d gone far enough, and went to sleep—and awoke to an inch of snow and more coming down hard. I’d only miscalculated by about ten miles, though, so it was easy to get out. I didn’t see the sun at all between Pennsylvania and western Arizona.

I left New Jersey on Saturday afternoon, and arrived in Las Vegas on Tuesday morning. Not exactly a speed run—I’ve done it faster—but there wasn’t much incentive to do sightseeing in the brutal winter weather. I’ve done this drive many times, but it’s been a couple years and some things have changed.

Oklahoma has deteriorated in the past decade. It began several years ago with the closing of the picnic areas on the Turnpike and I-40. Now, they’ve closed the last rest area on I-40, the one just before the Texas border. No rest for you. Some new pavement notwithstanding, the roads are crumbling in places. One fears for one’s tires, and one’s suspension. I used to enjoy the drive across Oklahoma, but I have to admit I just don’t any more. It’s nothing some investment wouldn’t fix, but that’s single-party Republican rule for you.

The War on Rest Areas isn’t confined to Oklahoma, though. Several more in New Mexico, Arizona, and elsewhere have succumbed. The nice one west of Albuquerque, across from the Sky City Casino, is closed. Even roadside picnic areas with no services are an endangered species.

Speed limits are rising across the land. Even Pennsylvania has part of its Turnpike posted at seventy. Ohio is no longer a sixty-five mile per hour, saturation-patrolled annoyance. Texas has abandoned its split day/night limits. Some of these changes I knew about, and some were pleasant surprises, but the result is that there wasn’t a single state on the entire trip still adhering to the Sixty-Five Religion, except the one where I started, and no one gives a crap about goddamn New Jersey. Unfortunately, the condition of the highways is declining, so it’s harder to enjoy the higher limits when the road surface forces you to slow down anyway.

Dollar Sixty Nine

Gas prices are plunging, making this a great time for a long drive. I paid $1.699 at one point. With prices so shockingly low, and the infrastructure crumbling, now would be a great time to increase the federal gas tax, with the Highway Trust Fund set to run dry in a few months. But the Republicans won’t hear of it—nor the sensible approach of just paying for highway construction out of the general Treasury. They _want_ the infrastructure to crumble, so they can realize their nightmarish vision of all-private, all-toll roads, lining the pockets of their corporate masters, with privacy policies promising to sell your movements to anyone they want. Hey, if you don’t like it, no one’s _forcing_ you to leave home, right?

One F-35 would pay for all the rest areas in the country. The whole embarrassing, useless F-35 boondoggle would pay to fix the nation’s entire surface transportation infrastructure. A plane that doesn’t work is more important, though.

But it’s 55 degrees and sunny here in Las Vegas, in January. I feel like I’m cheating.

Texas: A Modest Proposal

Texas State Line

Since Barack Obama's reelection, we've been hearing from a bunch of people who are so upset that they want to secede from the Union. Not surprisingly, this sentiment is centered largely around Texas, where there is a widely-held but incorrect belief that the state, unique among the fifty, reserves the right to secede at will.

The White House petition continues to grow, which probably says more about the absurdity of online petitions than it says about secession. Governor Rick Perry says he is against the idea.

Look at what happened last time: a massive war killing hundreds of thousands of people, and for what? So they can still want to leave again, 150 years later? Let's not repeat that mistake. Let's just let them go, if they hate this country that much. What do we want Texas for, anyway?

A Modest Proposal

So here's my proposal. Chop Texas into two pieces: the Panhandle, and the rest of it. The Panhandle is the good part of Texas. The Panhandle has Route 66; it has one of the main east-west corridors for truck and train shipping; it has that restaurant where if you can eat the 72-ounce steak in an hour, it's free; it has the largest cross in the Western Hemisphere; it has Cadillac Ranch; it has one-third of the world's helium supply. It has the only assembly and disassembly facility for nuclear weapons in the country. It has Deaf Smith County, which is far too cool a name to let go. It's one of the fastest-growing sources of wind power in the country, of which I'm sure the rest of Texas is deeply ashamed.

The Panhandle, we keep. The rest of it, go ahead and leave. We won't miss it. The Panhandle can join Oklahoma, or New Mexico if it prefers (I'm sure it won't).

Groom Cross Cadillac Ranch Cadillac Ranch

The federal government can just pull out. Send letters to all the senior citizens informing them that their Social Security and Medicare benefits will be ending – I'm sure they resent every penny of “redistribution” they get from those programs, and will be happy to be free of them. Fold up the Postal Service and drive all the trucks north. Remove all the military hardware, and blow up the bases on the way out – we can't have that stuff falling into the hands of a foreign government, after all. Pack up the Border Patrol and leave it to the Texas Rangers.

Oh, sure, the Panhandle is one of the most deeply Republican areas in the country. Roberts County voted 92.9% for Mitt Romney. But being Republican doesn't necessarily mean not wanting to be American, and Republicans are more than welcome in the USA. Folks need only move south if they want out – just like people in other states who want out can just pack up and head for Texas.

Texas is the rare red state that pays more in taxes than it receives in federal spending, so it should be able to fend for itself. It's got all that oil, after all. As long as the Texas State Guard, National Guard, and a bunch of well-armed good ol’ boys who remember the Alamo can secure the border against those Mexican drug cartels, it'll be fine.

Stop - Trust Jesus Old Route 66

We will miss Big Bend National Park. When the Republic of Texas sells it to a private company, and the roller coasters and water slides go up, it will be lost forever. A very real but worthwhile sacrifice.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico has voted to pursue statehood, so we may not even have to change the flag.

Or, you know, maybe all this secession talk is, as they say in Texas, “All hat and no cattle.”


Revel, the New Joint

Revel Atlantic City opened with much fanfare on Memorial Day Weekend, 2012. There was a concert with Beyoncé; Michelle Obama and Chris Christie attended (not together, silly).

But the joint had already been open for weeks, in what folks in the biz call a “soft opening.” A soft opening is a period of time when they're open, but if any problems arise, they can claim immunity from blame because they're “not really open.” It was during this period that I first visited Revel, and was underwhelmed. I made a snarky comment on the internet and left it at that.

Not fair, right? I mean, the place wasn't really open yet. Each time I returned to Atlantic City, I would look out over the skyline from my room at the Borgata and see Revel, the tallest building in town, the one with the absurd colored ball on top, and think, you know, it really was nicer than most of the crappy boardwalk joints, wasn't it? Heck, it's a ten-minute drive across town from the Borgata; let's give it another shot.

The casino is trying very hard to be Vegas. New, trendy Vegas. Atlantic City is not like Vegas, but if you picked up the wrong hooker and woke up at Revel missing your wallet with no memory of last night, you might think that's where you were. Lots of indirect lighting, bright slot machines, saturated colors, everything just so. Also, it's very, very red.

Revel Casino Revel Casino Revel Casino

The floor is thrown together haphazardly. I can't find any rhyme or reason to where things are: video poker, slots, high-limit, low-limit, table games, all strewn about seemingly at random by someone who thinks Vegas casinos are cool but doesn't really understand why. There are the requisite themed restaurants, but they somehow all look alike. There is a bar in the casino called Flirt – just in case you need instructions, they're right there in the trendy Vegas name. There's no buffet – buffets are so provincial.

Revel restaurant Flirt at Revel

A great trend that came to Vegas a few years ago is the “ultra-lounge,” and Revel follows along, its ultra-lounge discreetly tucked away in a corner of the casino. An ultra-lounge is a room where they put all the pretentious douchebags, so the rest of us don't have to deal with them.

Revel's video poker payouts for Jacks or Better are 8/5 (97.3%); Borgata's are 9/6 (99.54%) – “full pay,” as good as it gets. Revel's payouts for Deuces Wild are 20/12/10/4 (97.58%), which beats Borgata's 16/13/4 (96.77%) slightly. Revel's video roulette machines are double-zero games (which you should never play), while Borgata's are single-zero. Not much going for Revel here.

But what about poker? I set out to find the poker room. The directory sign sent me up the massive escalators in the glass-enclosed lobby, but no poker room was evident. Finally I gave up and found an employee standing around trying to look helpful. Following his directions led me up the giant escalator, then past a sign clearly indicating that the general public was not to pass the sign.

I walked down a surreal, empty corridor, like an eerie space station set from Doctor Who. Then another empty corridor, then another, not passing a single human being, the feeling that I'd taken a very wrong turn growing with each step.

Revel corridor, on the way to the poker room Revel corridor, on the way to the poker room, part 2 Revel corridor, on the way to the poker room, part 3

Finally, I came upon the Revel poker room – a dark, quiet room near the back, on a level above the casino – where they were running two tables of 1-2 No Limit, and that's it. Two tables.

Revel poker room

This is the Borgata poker room, for comparison:

Borgata poker room

Once there, I explored this bizarrely empty upper level, and discovered that you can get to this level from the casino, using a nondescript staircase next to Flirt. You'd never know by looking at it, and clearly the guy who gave me directions didn't know.

Nice poker rooms are the trend in Vegas; I guess secret, back-room poker is supposed to one-up the trend. And this one-upping is a recurring theme at Revel. Vegas casinos are restricting smoking to designated areas; at Revel, you can't smoke anywhere in the building. Vegas casinos are getting bigger; at Revel, to get to the hotel lobby, you go up three giant escalators to the eleventh floor and then walk down a long corridor where you can barely see to the other end. (Or just park on the eleventh floor and go straight there.)

And then there's the Vegas trend of having dancers in the casino. This is cool. It's edgy, and adds a little mystery and excitement to the experience. Revel wanted to one-up this trend, too, but unfortunately it was designed by someone who knows as much about cool as Mitt Romney knows about the middle class.

Here are some Las Vegas casino dancers: Planet Hollywood, New York New York, and Luxor.

Planet Hollywood casino dancer New York New York casino dancer Luxor casino dancer

How do you one-up casino dancers? How about a whole strip club, right in the casino? Well, yes, that would do it. That would be edgy. That would be cool. But it would also be too much for some customers, and offensive to others. That's the price of cool. Revel didn't want to pay the price, so they made a fake strip club instead.

The “Royal Jelly Burlesque Nightclub” is open to the casino, so everyone walking by can see how cool it isn't. So, it would have to be fake: in New Jersey, you can have alcohol, or you can have strippers, but you can't have both in the same joint. (Yes, The Sopranos got this tragically wrong.) So, there are dancers pretending to be strippers, which turns out to be pretty lame. This isn't edgy; this isn't cool. This is trying too hard.

Revel Royal Jelly Revel Royal Jelly dancer Revel Royal Jelly dancer

Where Revel is not trying too hard is with luring in regular customers. I got a rating card on my first visit, and used it to play some video poker. I used it again this time. You also use it, and supposedly get rewards, when buying food at any of the restaurants, and I did. Well, I have yet to hear from Revel's marketing department. No offers, no postcards, no emails. There is no way to log into the website to view offers. Borgata and Harrah's give out free weeknight rooms like candy at Halloween, but Revel? Yeah, if you have a premium card from Harrah's or Trump, but apparently not for the hoi polloi. Sure, Revel doesn't seem as cool, but let me stay a couple nights and I'll give it another chance.

Until then, Borgata it is. I don't seem to be alone in this evaluation: the joint is not exactly packed, and despite being only a few months old and being Governor Christie's pet project, it's already having financial problems. So it goes.

Screw You Guys, I’m Going To Canada

When the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare,” Republicans took to the internet, declaring that they were moving to Canada to escape the socialist tyranny of universal health care. I decided to go to Canada to see how it’s working out for them.

I’m bumming around northwestern Pennsylvania, camping in Allegneny National Forest and trying not to spend too much money. The heat wave is really getting to me. I actually walked around Walmart for a while just to cool off. I don’t shop at Walmart, but I’m not above using their air conditioning. Niagara Falls, surely a popular starting point for newly converted Canadians, is just a couple hours away; who wouldn’t want to start their new life beside giant waterfalls? I’m looking forward to talking to these former Americans and seeing how they like their new home.

I’m a day early. My hotel reservation on the Canadian side isn’t until tomorrow night. I decide to walk across the Rainbow Bridge to Canada: I’ve walked across the Mexican border, so I should walk across the other one, too. Halfway across I begin to wonder at my sanity, doing this in the middle of a record-setting heat wave. The sun will be down when I walk back, I assure myself.

I’m drenched in sweat by the time I reach the humorless Canadian border agent. There’s only the one guard, but it’s just me, a group from Korea, and one adventurous American family crazy enough to walk it in this weather, so there’s not much of a line.

I don’t know what these guys are looking for. Maybe if I understood the threat model I would sympathize better. On the Mexican border, it’s obvious: on the way into Mexico, no one looks at you or checks your papers at all; on the way back to the US, they’re concerned about drugs. What’s this guy interested in? Cash. How much cash am I carrying? Could he see it? How am I paying for my trip? Where am I staying tonight?

That one was the sticking point. Authority figures don’t like the way I travel; they find it threatening. Where am I staying tonight? How the hell should I know? I’ll probably sleep in a truckstop parking lot. What part of “I’m not staying in Canada” means it’s still any of your concern? What’s the problem? The cash. I’ve got a couple hundred bucks in cash. Where did I get it? What is it for? Finally, grudgingly, he allows me to enter Canada. Free from Obamacare at last!

As I walk along in the Promised Land, everything feels different. No Obamacare! No Obama at all! He wouldn’t dare authorize a drone strike in Canada, would he? The freedom, the liberty, permeates the air like humidity. Or, no, that’s actually humidity. It’s pretty brutal.

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The Highway of the Beast

Several years ago, driving across New Mexico, I looked at my map and saw US Highway 666 extending northward from I-40 into Colorado. Excited, my camera ready, I hurried to it, only to discover it was gone: a bunch of killjoys renamed it to US 491 in 2003, and my map was outdated.

But all is not lost. In northwestern Pennsylvania, cutting through the middle of Allegheny National Forest, is State Highway 666. So, you can still drive the highway to Hell.