Death Valley, March 2003

My last day at PayPal was Friday, the 21st of March 2003. The only job I ever held longer (a LOT longer, I regret to say) was my job at Lockheed, which I left on Thursday, the 22nd of March 1990. The spring equinox appears prominently in my history of resignations, although I suspect that Iím at my summer solstice in the larger timeline.

Except for a slight hangover I felt fine on Saturday, and although I was sneezing a bit on Sunday I didnít realize that I was coming down with a cold until the alarm went off at 4 AM on Monday when I had to get up to catch a 7 AM flight to Las Vegas. I had a slight scratchy feeling at the back of my throat that told me that my vacation in Death Valley wasnít going to be quite as carefree as I had originally hoped. Always one to put a positive spin on things though, it occurred to me that this might be a good premise to stop smoking. After all, my grandpa Jackson stopped smoking when he was my age and he made it to 99. After my shower I thought about it a little more over a cup of coffee and a cigarette, but the jury was still out at that point Ė and besides, I still had half a pack of cigarettes.

Upon arriving in Vegas we picked up our rental car. We had specifically reserved an SUV so that we could do some four-wheeling in Death Valley. We had been assured by National Rent-A-Car that all their SUVs were four-wheel-drive but this was not the case. I picked out a nice Nissan king-cab in the lot, but when I looked underneath I noticed there was no axel in the front, so we went with a Mitsubishi that DID have an axel in front. In retrospect I should have confirmed that it had an axel in back too but Daisy asked the attendant after we had loaded our stuff into the back, and he advised us that we had selected a front wheel drive SUV. We then unloaded our stuff from the Mitsubishi and loaded it into a Suzuki (made infamous by Consumer Reports for their tendency to roll over) because that turned out to be the only true 4x4 on the lot. Once I made sure I knew how to get in and out of 4 wheel drive, we headed out for Death Valley, pausing only long enough at a Walgreenís to pick up a variety of cold medications (I had had the foresight to pack Zinc and Vitamin C before leaving home), several bottles of water, and a pair of sunglasses (which I had not had the foresight to pack before leaving home).

In spite of having slept in till 4 AM I was beginning to feel drowsy about midway through the two-hour drive between Las Vegas and Death Valley so I stopped for a coffee in a depressed and depressing town called Pahrump. Marlboros were only $2.75 a pack so I picked up another pack. So far my smoking cessation was still in the planning phase.

We were rolling into Death Valley before noon and I figured the room wouldnít be ready yet
so we first took a ride up to Danteís View - a mile above the valley floor.

By the time we got to the Inn our room was ready. I still wasnít feeling the full weight
of the cold so I wasnít touching the meds yet Ė I was just pounding lots of vitamin C.
The view of Furnace Creek Inn from the east

The Furnace Creek Inn is situated on what appears to be an oasis in the middle of Death Valley. The architecture is early 20th century - two to four stories depending on which wing you're talking about, and there's a long tunnel that runs from the basement out to the parking lot. At sea level, the Inn sits on high ground overlooking The Furnace Creek Lodge and golf course about a mile down the road and 190 feet lower in altitude. From the outside it looks like The Hotel California, but inside it's nothing like The Hotel California. You can check out any time you like, but you can also leave. And there's nothing special about the wine OR the spirit. Most of the visitors are old and/or old money. The decor is southwestern as is the menu in the dining room, and although neither is particularly special, it is undoubtedly as good as it gets for 100 miles.

When we drove through here last May we stopped and got a book on the wild flowers. I read that they bloom between February and April at the lowest elevations, between March and May at the mid elevations, and between April and June at the highest elevations. I had originally planned the trip for the first week in April with the expectation that I was bound to catch the flowers at some elevation, but then rescheduled it for the last week in March because that was when I was going to be leaving PayPal. After we checked in, our first stop would be the ranger station a mile down the road, where we intended to find out where all the wild flowers are blooming at this time of the year. Daisy went inside to inquire while I enjoyed a cigarette outside in the heat. Nothing enhances the cigarette smoking experience like smoking in the heat - except perhaps smoking in the heat while coming down with a cold.

I was on my second cigarette when Daisy came out to inform me that the wild flowers hadn't started blooming yet this year. In the distance I thought I heard a muted trumpet going "wah-wah-wah-wah-wahhhhh".

When we got through savoring the irony we drove back up to the Inn where I decided it was time to start exploring the grounds a little. I began and ended my exploration at the hotel bar.

Later that night after my nap, we dined at "The Dining Room at The Inn". I had meant to bring a couple good bottles of wine on the trip for just such an occasion, but in the end I decided it wasn't worth calling ahead to inquire about their corkage policy and it wasn't worth having to carry on an extra bag. As it turned out, nothing on the wine list was particularly expensive. They seemed particularly proud of the '99 Rosemont Estate Shiraz, and at $54 a bottle it didn't seem like a bad buy considering it came all the way from Australia. Had I known, I would have brought a couple of the bottles that I had gotten for $8 at Cost Plus and I could have really wowed the Sommelier - who had undoubtedly read about it in the same Consumer Reports article that I had read.

Daisy on the patio after dinner

I had decided earlier when we had been up at Dante's View that I should go back at sunrise, when the colors would be more pronounced and the terrain would not be as flattened by the overhead lighting. I inquired at the hotel lobby to find out when sunrise and sunset would be the following day. Sunrise would be 5:44 and sunset would be around 6:00. I estimated that if I set the alarm for five I would have time to wake up, splash some water on my face and race up to Dante's View in time to see the sunrise. When the alarm went off Daisy announced that I could probably set up the tripod without her assistance, and went back to sleep. Fortunately there was no traffic because my time estimate had been overly optimistic, and I went careening up the mountain at twice the posted limit in places, negotiating the curves in an Suzuki not that different from the one that Consumer Reports had seen fit to give the singular distinction many years earlier for being the most prone to overturning. I was in such a hurry in fact that I didn't even have time to open my new pack of cigarettes and smoke one as I negotiated my way up the mountain.

Needless to say I made it. In fact I made it with over a minute to spare according to the clock in the car, but apparently the clock was fast or the earth was slow, because I actually had time to set up my tripod and take a 360 degree panorama sequence before the orange strip of sun began to grow on the eastern horizon.

Panorama shot of Dante's view just before sunrise.
You can see that it had gotten lighter by the time I had panned all the way back around to the right.

But enough about my artistic endeavors. There were logistical implications to consider as well. Although it had still been warm at sea level when I pulled out of The Furnace Creek Inn parking lot at 5:10, it was decidedly cold at 5400 feet when I got out of the car at Dante's View. Fortunately my jacket was still in the car, as I had had no reason to take it from the car since Leaving Las Vegas (what a depressing movie). Anyway, I unfortunately didn't have any long pants in the car and I was beginning to think that I should have put on something warmer than shorts before leaving on my adventure.
After shooting the 360 panorama series, I snapped one of the obligatory "sun creeping over the horizon" shots,

leapt back into the car, started it, and turned the heater on full blast. Once the aching began to subside in my legs I rolled down the window and took a couple more shots before heading back down the mountain.

Those of you who are scuba divers or skydivers are probably aware that when you have a cold it is sometimes difficult to clear your ears when you are descending. I reflected on this as I drove down the mountain much more slowly than I had driven up, chewing imaginary gum the whole time and wondering if the ear-clearing process might not be facilitated by sucking on something. Like a cigarette, for example. Unfortunately, the logic circuits were kicking in by this time and they were having none of it. I was reminded that if anything, I should be pinching my nose and blowing. Since this didn't play into my sinister rationalization for opening my new pack of cigarettes I eventually settled on a strategy of driving back slowly - stopping occasionally to take a picture or two and chewing on my imaginary gum.

Another panorama shot that I got on the way back down to the valley floor.

I think some of the photos benefited from the strategy of catching the sunrise, as the horizontal rays of the sun provided better contrast and more vivid pictures. As always though, pictures pale in comparison to the real thing, and this is especially true of someplace as expansive as Death Valley. I think this is primarily true because a picture of Death Valley can rarely occupy more than a small fraction of your field of view - whereas Death Valley extends in every direction to the horizon and beyond (much to the chagrin of many early settlers who had neglected to stock up on Evian before packing the old buckboard). On the other hand, you don't have to wake up at five in the morning to look at a picture, and you don't have to worry about stocking up on Evian either for that matter. In the end I think the quality of a picture grows over time as your recollection of the actual subject fades. In thirty years my only recollection of Death Valley might be of the pictures that I've occasionally looked at to keep the memory alive. If I were then to go back to Death Valley I might be astonished once again by it's majesty and beauty. Unfortunately this isn't true of thirty-year-old pictures of people, and is particularly not recommended when it comes to nudes.

But I digress. Although it took me little more than half an hour to get up to Dante's View, it took me nearly an hour to get back down to the Inn. I'd like to say that this was purely for the sake of photography, but it was also somewhat influenced by the situation with my ears. By the time I got back to the Inn I had been energized by the brisk air and the sublime beauty of the experience, and I was looking forward to the new day - as I usually do, believe it or not. Daisy on the other hand, was not yet looking forward to the new day and she suggested that I lay down for a couple minutes while she came to terms with the grim prospect. She told me later that fully five minutes transpired before I was serenading her with my snoring.

6:30 AM, looking west as you come back down into the valley.

Three hours later Daisy decided that she was now looking forward to the new day so she woke me up. By this time my cold had a full head of steam, while my head seemed to be full of something rather more viscous. I got up and brushed my teeth, which completely failed to give my mouth a fresher taste, or any taste at all for that matter. I congratulated myself for having had the discipline to go nearly twelve hours without a cigarette, and began to wonder if perhaps this wouldn't be a good time to stop smoking entirely. Fortunately there wasn't much time to wrestle with temptation as it was rapidly approaching 10:00 AM, when the dining room would be closing. I couldn't remember whether you're supposed to feed a cold and starve a fever, or vice versa but I was damn sure I needed coffee, and lots of it - so we went to the dining room, pausing briefly on the patio to capture the oasis-like setting for posterity

When we got down to the dining room, I considered the "Inn Benedict", but after having read what Anthony Bourdain has to say about Hollandaise Sauce and after scanning the empty expanse that was the dining room, I decided that the sauce might not be the freshest - so I opted for just "The Inn". In a fancier restaurant this might be called "The Grand Slam", but then it would probably come with pancakes, and that would have been $7 extra here. Anyway, colds tend to diminish the appetite and "The Inn" was plenty. If I had been at Denny's I could have used a paper napkin to sop up some of the excess butter on my eggs over-easy, but since I had only a cloth napkin I told myself that it would make up for the butter that they had neglected to provide with the toast.

Titus Canyon

After breakfast I was raring to go, so we hurried back to our hotel room and I went. After that we set out for adventure. First stop would be the ranger station once again, where we would pay our $10 entrance fee and find out how to get to some of the off-the-beaten path destinations that I had heard so much about. When I asked the ranger how to get to Titus Canyon he answered my question with a question. He asked me what kind of vehicle I was driving. I told him that I was driving a four-wheel-drive vehicle. He seemed somewhat disappointed. He said with as wry a smile as a redneck can elicit with several teeth missing, that they generally ask 4-wheelers to pick up any pieces that fall off while they're negotiating Titus Canyon. We all laughed and had good fellowship, and then I joked that I was glad that I had rented the vehicle rather than having bought one. I'm not sure if he owns stock in a rental car company or if he just resented the fact that I had upped the ante on this witty repartee, but he became very serious and informed me that he wasn't about to tell me how to get there now. For one thing, my rental car wouldn't be equipped with off-road tires, and that terrain would tear up my rubber faster'n you c'n say "monster truck pull". Furthermore, if I had taken the time to read my rental car contract I would have known that my contract explicitly prohibits off-road use, and once you get stuck out there the towing companies wont even talk to you for less than $1500. I of course felt like a fool for having failed to bring my reading glasses, and for foolishly having neglected to carefully scrutinize each page of the contract as any sensible car renter undoubtedly would. I had not just wasted his time; I had wasted my money, not only for the 4-wheel drive SUV with a transfer case, granny gear and reinforced skid plates to protect the undercarriage - but also for the previous night's lodging, which I wouldn't have needed if I had remained overnight at the car rental facility, reading the rental contract.

I thanked the ranger for all his help and we returned to the car, where Daisy reviewed the rental car agreement while I perused the map. As we headed north Daisy confirmed that indeed, the contract explicitly states that you are prohibited from going on unpaved roads with this 4-wheel drive SUV with a transfer case, granny gear and reinforced skid plates to protect the undercarriage.

When we got to Titus Canyon Road I had a little difficulty locating the turnoff at first. I saw the sign but failed to see the dirt road itself because in a desert that consists of little more than the occasional creosote bush or a joshua tree, it's hard to tell a mound of gravel from a berm. By the time I realized that I had missed the road we were only a couple miles from a town that was identified on the map as a Ghost Town. I had certainly heard of ghost towns before but I didn't recall having actually been to one so I explained to Daisy that I had meant to pass Titus Canyon Road so that I could show her this ghost town up the road.

By the time we got to the ghost town turnoff we were back in Nevada. The turnoff was easier to spot than the Titus Canyon Road turnoff and I pulled off the highway onto the road that led about half a mile to the ghost town. As the ghost town loomed ahead, we noticed off to our left a bunch of strange sculptures and artwork fashioned out of chrome bumpers and what appeared to be mannequins draped in white - like ghosts. Get it? Ghosts? Ghost town?

So anyway, on up the road we went to the ghost town. There were four or five falling down buildings. One was made of brick and the roof (which presumably wasn't made of brick) was gone. Having been to Rome three months earlier, and having seen the ruins there, I decided to pause only long enough to make a Y-turn and head back out to the highway.

On the way back out to the highway we had to stop and look at the chrome sculptures and the ghosts. From a distance I was reminded of Burning Man.

Turns out it's some sort of outdoor museum.

What appeared to be mannequins draped in white were in fact just chairs that somebody
had sat on long enough for a fiberglass cloth (that had been draped over them) to cure.

On the way back I was determined not to miss Titus Canyon Road again. Daisy hadn't spoken a word to me since I hade made it clear that I was determined to at least have my 4-wheel-drive experience while I was here in Death Valley. If the flowers had declined to bloom on cue that was out of my hands, but I was not going to be denied by some slack-jawed yokel in a Smokey The Bear hat. I offered to drop Daisy off at the Inn before proceeding on my appointed rounds, but she had apparently realized that I would not be fully able to appreciate the magnitude of her dissatisfaction unless she were in close proximity.

So there we were, heading back down Route 374, when I saw the sign for Titus Canyon Road. And there... just off to the right... was a vast expanse of desert. Then a little further up on the left I noticed the backside of a sign that must have been the Titus Canyon Road sign that I had seen coming the other way. I reasoned that the road had to be to my right somewhere between these two signs so I slowed to a stop - ostensibly so that I could shift the transfer case into 4-wheel drive, but actually so that I could look for what surely must be a road, right around here, somewhere. And then suddenly, there it was... something that could very well be a road and not just a coincidental arrangement of dirt mounds... conceivably. So off I went in 4-wheel drive, with confidence and ease - as far as Daisy knew - into the unknown.

After about a hundred feet or so I noticed off to my left behind some creosote bushes something that looked very much more like a dirt road than what we were on, so I gently negotiated my way between a joshua tree and a cow's skull, onto the Titus Canyon Road. This was it for sure. Straight ahead, as far as the eye could see up the gentle incline, the desert wilderness on either side, and this dirt road going gently up into the high desert.

The road was pretty bumpy so I was taking it slow - about 6 m.p.h. Occasionally we would lurch over a pretty good bump and the back of the vehicle would slam down with a bang. I was pretty sure that the suspension wasn't bottoming out and I was constantly consulting my rear view mirror to make sure I hadn't left any large parts in the road. When you're going 6 m.p.h. you can spend a lot of time looking in the mirror without worrying too much about hitting anything that moves faster than a gila monster or a rattlesnake. I was in no hurry; it was about 2 PM and I didn't want to make the ride too rough. I wanted to set Daisy's mind at ease that I knew what I was doing, there was nothing to worry about; I'm a seasoned veteran at this sort of thing.

Up ahead we saw a sign that said "One way only next 28 miles". It was at this moment that I was reminded that sunset was supposed to be right around 6 PM, and now it turns out and we had at least 28 miles to go. I did some quick arithmetic: four hours till sunset; 28 divided by 4 equals 7; I was traveling 6 m.p.h; at this pace I would be arriving at the end of Titus Canyon Road no earlier than 40 minutes after sunset. I quickened our pace. 7 m.p.h. didn't seem that much bumpier and at this rate we could conceivably be out of there by the time the sun was going down. Except that the name of the road was Titus CANYON Road, and it generally gets dark in canyons before sunset.

At 10 m.p.h. the ride didn't seem THAT much bumpier, although at this pace it would be a little more difficult to spot parts in the rear view mirror as they pop off and go bouncing into the dust. Anyway, we seemed to be getting used to the ride or maybe the road was actually getting smoother now. I picked up the pace. By now we had crested the first ridge and ahead in the distance there was another slight ridge.

At 15 m.p.h. the wheels didn't seem to spend as much time on the road but the ride didn't seem to be that much bumpier. In the turns though, I noticed a tendency for the vehicle to go in a direction that didn't necessarily correspond to the direction that the wheels were pointing.

I sensed that Daisy was noticing this, and although she wasn't saying anything I felt obliged to put her mind at ease so I explained to her that there was nothing to worry about. I had had countless hours of experience doing just this sort of thing playing "Offroad Thunder" on my Sega Dreamcast. Daisy didn't seem to want to listen to reason however, so as we approached another blind curve I backed off on the throttle a little until the vehicle was once again traveling in the direction that the wheels were pointing.

After we had driven for about ten miles we saw another SUV parked on the side of the dirt road. Two middle-aged men were standing outside the vehicle talking, and we waved as we passed. Over the next few miles as the terrain became more mountainous and challenging we passed several more SUVs. Typically these were large Explorers or Blazers with drivers who had the look of experienced 4-wheelers, and I began to feel more comfortable in the knowledge that if we did run into trouble we could flag them down as they caught up. I neednít have worried however, because we never ran into trouble and they never caught up. Apparently their bloated, lumbering Ford Explorers and Blazers were no match for my nimble (i.e. less than 5000 pounds) Suzuki.

Gradually the terrain had gone from overland desert brush to progressively more twisty roads that descended into the gorge that was becoming Titus Canyon. As we came around one particularly sharp turn I spotted two vehicles parked up ahead, and one adventurous soul was in the process of unpacking a mountain bike to ride down into the canyon. We drove slowly past, and it wasnít until we had gone another half mile or so into the most treacherous section that I realized that one of the vehicles had been some kind of ordinary station wagon. As I reviewed my mental image of the scene it seemed to me that it had been a Taurus station wagon, and I began to wonder what my friend, the park ranger would have to say about this.

By now I was estimating that we had passed about half way into our 28-mile trip and I was hoping that the terrain wasnít going to get any rougher because I was definitely having to make my way carefully down the steep dirt roads without dragging the undercarriage as I went.

I was having serious doubts about how that Taurus station wagon was going to make it out Ė not to mention the guy on the mountain bike. Based on what I had seen on the map earlier, and if my estimation was correct I knew that we would be coming into another ghost town soon called Leadfield, which was a lead mining town that had sprung up early in the 20th century based on a claim that turned out to be a hoax. No lead was ever found. It was all just a practical joke by some wacky scam artist who probably defrauded a bunch of investors into buying into his get-rich-quick scheme. I had to wonder how anybody could have gotten rich quick even if there HAD been lead there. Even if there had been tons and tons of lead, I suspect that a ton of lead isnít worth a hell of a lot, and then there was that value-added matter of lugging it 15 miles out of Titus Canyon on roads that were not well suited to the kinds of automobiles that would have been available in that era. There would also have been the issue of the flash floods that frequented the bottom of the canyon, but in the end I guess this proved to be no problem as there was no lead, and no need for a cigar-chomping foreman to instruct his drivers to "get the lead out".

Anyway, I told Daisy that we would be approaching a ghost town and she chastised me for my poor sense of direction. She was quite certain that we had not looped around and that the ghost town must be 20 miles behind us by now. After explaining that there were in fact countless ghost towns, conversation once again subsided until we pulled alongside Leadfield.

In addition to having an old rusting car frame and a few ramshackle tin-roof shacks, the town also featured a surprisingly modern looking porta-potty. While Daisy investigated the porta-potty I investigated one of the creosote bushes while looking over my shoulder occasionally to see if any vehicles were catching up.

About the time we were getting ready to head out of Leadfield I was amazed to see the bicyclist roll into town, followed by the aforementioned station wagon. I spoke briefly with the driver, and expressed relief that he had made it down the canyon. He seemed to be relieved also, and explained his technique. The trick is to always keep a row of wheels in the center of the road, with the other row of wheels out to the side. In this way, he explained, you were less likely to drag the undercarriage on the crown of the road. Since he had made it this far I didnít bother to explain that in this way you were also more likely to slide off the road and plummet into the gorge. He was wearing a Stanford sweatshirt and had the air of a professor, so I didnít think it was my place to wax pedantic. Interestingly enough, his friend on the bicycle also had the air of a college professor. He was about fifty, athletic, and sporting a prodigious gray beard. I amused myself with the notion that this was the sort of behavior (negotiating the gorge on a bicycle or in a station wagon) that one might expect from a Stanford professor. Iíve often believed that the difference between clever people and ordinary people is the magnitude of the consequences of their bad decisions. However based on that theory, George W would have to be a really clever guy, and we know THAT aint true.

Anyway, I was anxious to get going now before the bicyclist got ahead of me - inevitably getting wedged in my grille, so we hopped into the Suzuki and got going. Before long we were in what appeared to be a dry riverbed full of gravel rather than soil. I could feel the Suzuki sinking into the gravel, and I was envisioning us getting bogged down in the gravel Ė with the tires sinking in further with every futile spin of the wheels. To avoid such an unfortunate turn of events I drew on the countless hours of experience that I had gained from "Offroad Thunder", and I just kept going as quickly as possible while trying not to slam into the occasional boulder or parked SUV.

A couple times I had to slow down because there wasnít enough room to pass some lumbering oaf in a Range Rover or a Jeep, and this made me nervous Ė but they would usually notice me within a few hundred yards and find a place to move out of my way. The second half of the Titus Canyon trip went much more quickly than the first half, and we emerged with a couple hours to spare before sunset.

Instead of heading south to Furnace Creek, we headed north when we got to the highway. Next stop in about 25 miles would be Scottyís Castle. If youíre ever staying at The Furnace Creek Inn and you have the opportunity to visit Scottyís Castle, ask yourself this: "Whatís on cable?". Maybe Iím being a little close-minded here, as I didnít actually pay the $8 to tour the place, but it struck me as about as authentic as the original Round Table Pizza parlor in Menlo Park - with extra cheese.

Picture an authentic adobe and stucco mediaeval castle with a souvenir shop and snack bar. I didnít actually get a hot dog at the snack bar but the sign says that theyíre prepared fresh. I guess I just wasnít hungry. Maybe it was my cold. Anyway, if you're trying to optimize your tourist dollar, my advice is save your $8 for The Biggest Ball Of Twine In Minnesota.

After Daisy had seen as much as she wanted of Scottyís Castle (which was considerably more than I wanted to see), we headed next to Ubehebe Crater, a volcanic crater that lay north about another 5 or 10 miles. This was a truly impressive sight. I took some pictures, which as I mentioned earlier, completely fail to convey the size of this thing. Think of an amphitheater that seats 100,000 and youíll begin to get the idea. The story goes that a couple millennia ago a large volume of water was settling down through the water table even as a large body of molten rock was rising to the surface. Apparently there was a pretty violent interaction when the two met. When you look into the crater you notice different colored layers descending down into the base of the crater. However, the top layer is black cinder that extends for a great distance across the desert in every direction. This presumably is what became of the molten rock when it came in contact with the water.

I thought about walking down the trail into the crater, but after looking around I saw no sign of an escalator leading back out, and as my cold was now nearly at full force I decided to just take a couple pictures and head back to the car.

That night we wandered a mile down the road to rustle up some grub at the local cafe. The flatware wasn't particularly clean and the service wasn't especially fast, but the price was right and they had Sierra Nevada Pale Ale - so all was well with the world. I snapped this shot just after sunset as we set out for the cafe.

The next day my cold was in full force. One of my ears had been plugged since returning from Ubehebe Crater the previous night, so I decided to start taking the cold medication. Within an hour the congestion had lifted considerably, and in itís place was a pseudoephedrine-induced sense of nervous drowsiness that left me with little motivation to do much of anything. We did manage to make it down to Badwater Ė where the elevation dips to 280 feet below sea level.

When we got to Badwater we got out and admired the scenery for about as long as Chevy Chase took in The Grand Canyon in Vacation Ė and then we got back in the vehicle and raced back to Furnace Creek. My recollections are pretty fuzzy for the remainder of that day, but by the next day my cold was starting to get better so I didnít bother to take any meds before packing up and heading back to Vegas.

We got to Vegas around 11 AM and our room was ready at Mandalay Bay, so we checked in and then set about seriously losing some money. At least I did. I started off winning for the first few minutes but then I discovered that my dealer was just a substitute dealer while the real dealer took her 10-minute break. When our real dealer took over, my luck turned and never looked back. My real dealer was named Patty, and she was about sixty. Patty spoke in a very wispy voice and I heard her remark to our departing substitute dealer that she was out of breath from walking back from her break. From the sound of it I was thinking emphysema but when I asked why she was out of breath she said in a resigned tone of voice "I have lung cancer". She didnít say "I had lung cancer" or "I'm recovering from lung cancer", she said "I have lung cancer". I told her I was sorry to hear that, and she replied "Itís my own fault. I smoked cigarettes."

I was astonished by her stoicism. Didnít she realize that itís un-American to accept responsibility for contracting lung cancer? Didnít she realize that it was the fault of the cigarette companies for making them available to her? I was going to bring this to her attention but I was distracted by the inexorable flow of chips from my side of the table to hers. I noticed that there were ashtrays available at this table: that it was not a "No Smoking" table. The last time I had been to Vegas, this would have been my cue to light a cigarette Ė if only as a delaying tactic to staunch the flow of chips to her side of the table. However, since I hadnít had a cigarette in over two and a half days, and since the lady across from me was dying of lung cancer, I decided to give a break to both my lungs and whatever remained of hers.

In retrospect I think it was a good thing that I came down with a cold, and itís definitely a good thing that I met Patty Ė in spite of what she did to my finances. It gives me something to think about when I want a cigarette.