Columns

What happens in Vegas…

Whoever said what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, is obviously not a newspaper columnist.

My husband and a buddy usually hit Vegas via Laughlin, Nevada, for an annual guys getaway. This year his friend jetted to Maui, so Derek asked me if I’d like to go.

The folks at Don Laughlin’s Riverside Resort Hotel and Casino sweetened the deal by offering us a buy-one, get-one-free deal for airline travel and resort stay. On Thursday we drove to Lewiston to catch a chartered flight aboard Laughlin’s Sun Country Airlines.

A couple of hours later, we landed in Bullhead City, Arizona, where a resort bus met us and drove us across the Colorado River to Laughlin.

Crossing three states, two time zones, and one river makes you hungry. After checking in, we stretched our legs along the Riverwalk in pursuit of dinner.

“Look! A cat!” Derek said, pointing toward a nearby garbage can.

As the varmint dashed across the sidewalk in front of us, we saw it wasn’t a kitty, it was a raccoon. He joined his wife and kid under the palm trees and agreeably posed for photos.

A different kind of wildlife awaited us in Vegas the following day. We rented a car and made the 90-minute drive to spend the day on Fremont Street.

Located in the original town site of Las Vegas, Fremont Street is the historic center of the city featuring a five-block stretch of enclosed casinos, shops, bars and restaurants.

Derek prepped me for the visit.

“There’s all kinds of street performers and vendors,” he explained. “Whatever you do, don’t make eye contact, or they’ll try to sell you something or hustle you for tips.”

Of course, I immediately forgot his words when we entered the glittery, bustling avenue. A friendly lady greeted us and asked if we were celebrating our anniversary.

Derek tugged at my hand and kept walking, but I didn’t want to be rude. That’s how I got suckered into a long sales pitch for tickets to a show we didn’t want to see.

“I told you,” he said. “Just keep walking.”

Lesson learned. When a well-muscled shirtless man wearing snug-fitting camo pants asked if I wanted a hug, I only paused for a second.

“He said it’s OK,” the fellow assured, pointing to Derek.

“I get all the hugs I need,” I replied, without breaking my stride. Much.

A visit to the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, aka the Mob Museum, was next on our list.

It proved a fascinating, albeit gruesome jaunt through gangster history. We learned about the Kefauver hearings in the historic courtroom where one was actually held. The hearings led by Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver confirmed the existence of a national crime syndicate and revealed lax enforcement.

Other museum highlights included cocktails in an underground speakeasy, and an opportunity to “electrocute” my husband in a replica electric chair.

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Then it was on to dinner at the Heart Attack Grill, a restaurant that celebrates gluttony by offering unlimited free burgers to anyone weighing over 350 lbs.

Waitresses dressed as nurses deliver wine via IV poles and tubing, and if you don’t clean your plate they deliver spankings with a paddle. Seriously.

Derek warned me about that. But what he didn’t tell me is that you have to wear a hospital gown to eat, and there’s a ginormous public weigh-in spot that broadcasts your weight for all visitors along Fremont Street to see.

Within minutes, we witnessed five spankings. Those nurses pack a wallop. I ordered the smallest burger possible and ate every bite. I haven’t been so focused on cleaning my plate since I was a kid and threatened with an early bedtime if I left any peas on my plate.

As night fell, we enjoyed free live music and the Viva Vision light show. The light show video screen is 1,500 feet long, 90 feet wide and suspended 90 feet above Fremont Street’s pedestrian mall.

It was amazing! But all that glitz and glitter made me pine for some natural beauty. A morning boat cruise along the Colorado River was just the ticket.

The cruise aboard the USS Riverside took us along Laughlin’s Riverwalk all the way to Davis Dam and offered great historical perspective about this portion of Nevada.

Did I mention it was 84 degrees in Laughlin on Saturday? That called for some serious sunbathing at the resort’s adult-only pool. We alternated from poolside lounges to comfy river-view couches, soaking up the sun we knew would be in short supply in Spokane.

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And of course we played the slots, but we’re hardly high rollers. We set aside a certain amount of cash for entertainment and don’t spend any more than what we bring.

Derek led me to a machine he knew I’d love – the OMG! Kittens. I quickly found out the OMG! stands for the $40 I quickly dropped just to see adorable kittens speed past me and meow.

Luck wasn’t a lady that night, and it was a little disconcerting to see people my mother’s age still going strong at midnight when, exhausted, we headed for our room.

It was a lovely getaway, but by Sunday we were ready to return. After all, we already hit the jackpot with our own OMG! Kittens and they were waiting for us at home.

Columns

Sunrise and the San Francisco Writers Conference

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The rooster’s hoarse crows were sounding desperate and none of us knew what to do.

There are a lot of things you expect to hear when packed into an airplane, but a rooster crowing isn’t one of them.

On Valentine’s Day I boarded a flight to San Francisco to attend the San Francisco Writer’s Conference, a three-day event filled with classes, workshops, literary agents, publishers and hundreds of authors.

I was seated next to a young mother and her adorable 2 1/2-year-old son.

“Did you hear that?” she asked, as we settled in, awaiting takeoff. “It’s a rooster!”

Barely awake, I put down my book and listened. Sure enough a faint cock-a-doodle-do echoed throughout the cabin.

“It must be someone’s phone,” I replied.

But the crowing continued and grew more frantic as the minutes passed.

“I hope they’re not serving chicken sandwiches,” said a lady across the aisle. “That’s taking farm-to-table a little too far!”

We tittered but the crowing continued as the engines revved.

“It’s probably someone’s emotional support rooster,” announced the gentleman behind me.

Alas, we’ll never know, because once we fastened our seat belts and were airborne, the crowing ceased.

“If he’s in the cargo hold, his nuggets are frozen solid,” I said.

“Nuggets? Want nuggets!” the toddler next to me demanded.

Thankfully, he was satisfied with the Goldfish crackers his mother gave him.

It was my first visit to the Bay area, and I was delighted to leave Spokane’s frigid February and arrive in a city with temperatures in the balmy 50s.

Due to flight delays, I had to hit the ground running to make it to my first workshop. I checked into my hotel in the Embarcadero, directly across from the iconic Ferry building, and gathered my credentials.

“Hi Cindy, Happy Valentine’s Day,” said a stranger in the lobby.

“Er. Thank you,” I replied.

“Hey, Cindy! How are you today?” another gentleman asked, moments later.

These people are so friendly, I thought, but how do they know me?

Then I looked down at the credentials hanging from a lanyard around my neck, my first name written in super-sized font. Apparently, my fame had not preceded me.

I wasn’t the only one. I’d noticed the attendees had white nametags, and the volunteers had orange ones. In the elevator I asked a fellow sporting an orange nametag if he was helping at the conference.

“I’m presenting,” he said.

Turns out it was Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, the leading distributor of indie ebooks.

Moving on.

After several classes, I had just enough time to dash across the street to pick up a sandwich for dinner.

“Ma’am where’s your jacket? It’s freezing!” the concerned doorman asked, as I scouted nearby restaurants.

“It’s 53 degrees!” I replied. “When I left Spokane it was 17! This is tropical!”

He shook his head, huddled in his heavy overcoat.

“At least take an umbrella,” he said, offering one from the hotel’s stash.

The umbrella was necessary that night, but I never used one again – not even during a sunrise photography walk, sponsored by the Writer’s Workshop.

That’s right. I may be notoriously anti-morning, but I saw the sun rise from a pier near the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. I wasn’t about to pass up a chance to explore the area with a professional photographer as a guide.

51920729_2191659600872655_2118461617678057472_n[1]However, the morning got off to a rocky start when I discovered my hotel room had only decaf coffee. Thankfully, by the time I’d returned the front desk had sent up a stash of the real thing.

But the coffee didn’t prevent my next elevator faux pas.

“Are you here for the writer’s conference?” I asked a fellow, as we descended to the meeting rooms.

“No, I’m here for a conference on thinking,” he replied.

“Writers think, too,” I said. And then I silently vowed to stop speaking to strangers on elevators.

Speaking of mornings, I took comfort in the words of keynote speaker Jane Friedman. “With a little self-awareness you can compete with morning people,” she said.

I knew she was one of my tribe even before that because she shared a photo of a kitty she frequently cat-sits. I quickly got out my phone and shared a photo of Thor with my tablemate, which prompted the other writers at the table to share pictures of their own cats.

It must be hard to be taken seriously as an author if you don’t have a cat.

Sunday morning I watched the sun rise over the bay and listened to the clang of the cable car as it rounded the corner in front of the hotel. I drank in the view of palm trees and the waterfront. It was time to fly home to the land of snow and ice.

I was tired and I missed my family, but Tony Bennett and I now have something in common. I. too, left my heart in San Francisco.

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Columns

A Matter of Perspective

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Derek and Cindy Hval at the beach in Crescent City, California

When your youngest child who recently graduated from high school with honors utters such a simple wish, well, what parent wouldn’t want to fulfill it?

Sam is 18, and the window for family road trips is rapidly closing. His desire to see the redwood forest quickly became the focus of our family vacation.

Derek looked at maps and I booked hotels, and last week we returned from a trip that included the ocean, Shakespeare, waterfalls, the Columbia River Gorge and of course, ancient trees.

First I’d like to know what happened to all the Volkswagen Beetles? Every road trip from my childhood resulted in sore shoulders as my siblings and I played “Slugbug” or, as we called it, “Bugslug.” Our kids played it on family trips, too. But we traveled hundreds of miles and didn’t see a single Beetle till we returned to Spokane.

It’s probably just as well, because Sam was the only kid on this trip and you really shouldn’t punch your parents. Or your kids.

We picked Ashland, Oregon, as our central destination, making the grueling drive in one day. Smoke shrouded the landscape across Washington and into Oregon.

Speaking of Oregon, we thought the recently-passed gas law meant we could pump our own gas. Nope. Apparently, it varies by city or county. Derek opted to try at every fill-up, but was rarely successful.

Ashland is home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Derek and I had enjoyed a trip there several years ago, and had been anxious to return. We wanted Sam to see a play and mulled the options. The outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre is iconic and offers a fabulous experience, so we bought tickets for “The Book of Will,” which was slated for that theater during our stay.

The smoke-filled skies had me worried. The theater had canceled several performances due to poor air quality. Our hotel clerk said in the event of bad air, they move the play to the high school auditorium. Not at all what we were hoping for.

But first the redwoods. The Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park is just a two-hour drive from Ashland, so we crossed our fingers as we set off from the smoky city in the morning.

As we crossed the border into California the skies cleared. Who knew we’d have to drive to California to breathe fresh air?

We wound our way through the primeval forest, carefully avoiding gawkers who pulled over on the side of the narrow road to take pictures. Stopping at the Hiouchi Visitor Center 9 miles east of Crescent City, California, we picked up a map and directions to Stout Grove, a half-mile loop walking trail.

The stillness of the redwood forest is surreal. The immensity of the towering trees, the soft sunlight filtering through ancient branches, adds a unique hush, making the grove seem more like a church than a forest.

Indeed, a short time later while exploring a side trail, I happened upon a partially hidden makeshift memorial – a small cross made of sticks and a photo of a bearded man. I imagine this must have been his favorite place.

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Sam and I did get the giggles counting how many times Derek said the word “huge.”

Crescent City is a short drive from Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. We cruised into the sleepy town looking for a lunch spot with an ocean view.

“Why don’t you drive that way?” I suggested to Derek, pointing at the ocean in the distance.

Amazingly, the street ended at small parking lot with steps leading down to the beach. Even more amazing, we had the whole beach to ourselves! From old growth forest to tide pools, sand, waves and driftwood in 20 minutes.

After beachcombing, we found a harbor-side restaurant, and a chorus of barking seals serenaded us while we ate.

The smoke was clearing in Ashland the next morning, so we spent the day shopping and walking through Lithia Park. I hesitantly made reservations at an outdoor dining spot, but I needn’t have worried. We sat down to dinner under brilliant blue skies and later, stars twinkled above us as we watched the play in the outdoor theater.

In fact, the only rain we encountered was a light drizzle at Multnomah Falls on the way to Hood River the following day.

The rain didn’t dim the beauty of the falls, but it did close the path to the highest point.

We spent the last day of our trip exploring downtown Hood River, and then relaxing in the sun and the wind on the beach, marveling at the windsurfers, riding the waves.

Like most busy families, we’d started vacation tired and stressed. Each of us wrestling with worries both big and small.

But something happened.

Was it when we sat on a piece of driftwood, staring out at the vast blueness of the Pacific Ocean while the waves lapped the shore at our feet?

Was it when we walked through the silence of the ancient redwoods while the sun filtered through the foliage of God’s cathedral?

All I know is the cares and concerns that once loomed so large seemed to shrink, to lighten, to dissipate into the wonder and beauty of nature.

It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it?

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Cindy and Derek walk through the redwoods

Columns

Finding the true meaning of Dyngus

Sightseeing is thirsty business. After exploring the Christmas Story House and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland last month, we stopped for refreshment at the Tremont Tap House.

Our friendly server asked where we were from and when I said Washington, she asked, “The one by Canada?”

Once we were clear on geography and had our beverages, she asked if we’d be in Cleveland for Dyngus Day.

Now, when I was a kid “dingus” was synonymous with dingbat, dumbbell, doofus, and other not so nice words. Who knew there was a special day set aside to celebrate the dim bulbs among us?

Our waitress quickly disabused me of that notion.

“Dyngus Day is also called Wet Monday,” she explained. “It’s the day after Easter. There’s a parade and polkas and pierogis.”

She grabbed a guidebook off the counter.

“You can read all about it,” she said. “It’s a hoot. We throw water on each other and hit people with pussy willow branches.”

I love a good polka as much as anyone, but having water thrown on me, and being smacked by shrubbery isn’t what I consider a “hoot.”

Alas, I didn’t have opportunity to experience the delight of Dyngus because we flew home just before the holiday.

My curiosity was piqued, though, so this weekend I sat down and perused the booklet describing Cleveland’s biggest polka party. And then I delved deeper into the Dyngus.

First of all we were wrong to use the word as a childhood slur because loosely translated it actually means worthy, proper or suitable.

Historically a Polish tradition, Dyngus Day celebrates the end of the observance of Lent and the joy of Easter. It dates back to the baptism of Prince Mieszko I on Easter Monday in 966 A.D. The water symbolized purification, hence “Wet Monday.”

Cleveland is just one of many cities throughout the U.S. that hosts parties and parades in honor of Easter Monday. The largest celebration is in Buffalo, New York, where a local paper once proclaimed, “Everybody is Polish on Dyngus Day!”

Traditions abound, including wearing red and white, the colors of the Polish flag. But perhaps the most well-known Dyngus Day tradition is that in which single boys try to splash water on single girls as an expression of interest. Rooting from the baptism of the prince, the water represents cleansing, purification and fertility.

Men and women can also flirt with pussy willows, which are among the first plants to bud in the spring. The young men may lightly hit women on their legs to show they are interested.

That’s why my Cleveland guide lists the following as Dyngus Day essential items; pussy willows, squirt guns and polka pants.

Apparently, squirt gun fights and pussy willow whacks add up to a really good time.

Not everyone has been a fan of the celebration. The Bishop of Pozan’ tried to derail Dyngus Day in 1410. He forbade it, instructing residents not to “pester or plague others in what is universally called Dingus.”

Obviously, the prohibition didn’t stick. Probably because other activities include sampling Polish foods like pierogis, kielbasa and stuffed cabbage and drinking pints of piwo (beer).

Polka music is the heart and soul of the party, which means roving accordion bands and plenty of room for dancing.

In Cleveland the celebration culminates with the crowning of Miss Dyngus Day, followed by a parade featuring the “Frankie Yankovic accordion head float.”

I cannot believe we missed an ACCORDION HEAD FLOAT.

Which leaves me to wonder if Spokane has a large enough Polish community to pull of our own party and parade?

In any case, I’ve already planned our next trip to Ohio. I’m practicing my polka because we’ll be back on April 29, 2019 – Dyngus Day.

Contact Cindy Hval at dchval@juno.com. She is the author of “War Bonds: Love Stories From the Greatest Generation.” Follow her on Twitter at @CindyHval.