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Austin's Travels: Las Vegas and Phoenix

Updated Mar 28, 2019 / by Austin Dixon
Originally Published Mar 22, 2019

Hey, long time no see. I just returned from my longest trip to date, a two week marathon that brought me through Houston, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. For the sake of keeping it brief, this week's blog is going to cover just the first week of the trip. First, I'll touch on the short stop in Houston where we covered the famous Houston Rodeo. Next, I'll break the golden rule of Las Vegas in telling you what went down in the City of Sin. Finally, we'll wrap up in the sultry early spring heat of Phoenix. Buckle up for a wild ride through the Southwestern United States.

Day 1

The trip to Las Vegas/Phoenix was planned about a month ago for the end of February/beginning of March. After locking in that trip, it was a week later that the RYS team realized the dates we chose happened to land near the beginning of the yearly Houston Rodeo. For reference, I'd never visited Texas before, let alone Houston, so I didn't really understand the hype of the rodeo or why my boss was so adamant about adding this stop to the already long trip. Nonetheless, I trusted the vision and jumped on a plane one day early to check out the rodeo.

After I arrived in Houston, I only had a little bit of time before the event fired up. Everyone I had talked to prior to this trip highly suggested finding a BBQ spot once in Texas. I was feeling real hungry after that long flight, so after a quick stop at the hotel, I left for The Pit Room right outside downtown Houston. After I stepped in the front door, I knew that I had made the right choice via the mouth-watering smoked smells. The Pit Room was interesting 1)for the name and 2)for it's unique fusion of BBQ x Tex-Mex food. I got the two meat dinner which included my choice of 2 of their 10 meats along with two sides. $15 for all that food was unbelievable and started off the trip on a strong note.

Two Meat Dinner: Brisket and Venison Sausage w/sides of Mac and Cheese and Elote

It's hard to put to words the enormity of The Houston Rodeo. This is not just some rodeo with horses and bulls running around in a circle. I'd equate it more to a state fair on steroids. Taking place in and around NRG Stadium (home to the Houston Texans), The Houston Rodeo has been held yearly since 1931. Each year the event last for about 2 weeks straight with various events and competitions every day. The main event is set up in two parts: rodeo and concert. The rodeo takes place on the dirt in the middle of NRG Stadium for almost three hours before the concert. During this event you'll see everything from stagecoach racing to bull riding to steer wrestling (also special shout out to the mutton bustin' event). After the culmination of the rodeo, the stadium rolls out a humongous stage into the middle of the dirt that transforms into a spinning star. The night I attended, I was slightly disappointed the musical act was Brooks & Dun seeing that just two nights later the fans got Cardi B!

Houston Rodeo inside NRG Stadium

That said, the main event is only half of the full extravaganza. Outside NRG was one of the largest carnivals I'd ever seen and it continued to run even after the concert let out. Additionally, you can find the Houston Livestock Show and Auction directly adjacent to the stadium. This mainly runs during the day but definitely a spot to check out if you have time before the rodeo. I left the rodeo truly amazed with what I had experienced. Without a doubt you will find me back at the Houston Rodeo in the future. 

Carnival outside NRG Stadium

Day 2

The high I was running on after the Houston Rodeo quickly vanished when I woke up to a text at 4 AM from Southwest that my 11AM flight to Las Vegas had been canceled. Great! The only option left was a flight at 6:30 AM which brought me to Vegas at 9 AM. Thus, my first experience in the City of Sin was walking down the strip at 10 AM on a Thursday morning, feeling like Stu. To get the mind, body, and soul back aligned, I decided to indulge in The Delano's $30 spa before my big day ahead.

"viva" - Elvis Presley

That evening I had to check out last year's Stanley Cup runner ups, the Vegas Golden Knights. When I saw the Golden Knights at the beginning of March, it was looking like the previous year was a fluke. They were out of the playoffs and I began to question whether a professional sports team could even sustain in a city primarily filled with tourists. My questions were quickly answered, and I couldn't have been more wrong. Let me just say, so far in my travels I have not experienced a crowd this loud anywhere else in the US. The Golden Knights' faithful was no joke, people there absolutely love this team. I sat next to this guy who told me how he had just "re-upped" his season tickets for the next 5 years. This team is not just some ephemeral overnight success, the Golden Knights are here to stay. Since attending this game, the Knights are 7-1 over their last 8 and comfortably vying for a spot in this year's playoffs. 

The Golden Knights have not 1, but 2 mascots, a Golden Knight & whatever the hell that thing is on the screen

Day 3

I began day three with the obligatory walk down the famous Las Vegas strip. This place had to be designed to get people lost. I found it wild that you can't really walk along side the road. Starting at Mandalay Bay walking north towards Caesars, I had to traverse multiple streets via these congested walk bridges stuffed with scantly clad individuals and people trying to get me VIP access at some nightclub. Took me about 45 minutes to finally make it to the Bellagio fountains, only to find no fountains and more people pushing past me. Not my scene, but weirdly fun nonetheless. There's this thrill to the anticipation of something wild about to happen at any second. 

Mystery pond in front of Bellagio/Caesars Palace

When in Vegas, you have to check out one of the residency shows. Unfortunately, Celine Dion was on the expensive side so I was relegated instead to a major throwback artist, Gwen Stefani. Can't lie, my sister Arianna and I used to bump Gwen Stefani and No Doubt back in the day. Gwen had a cool blend of rock/pop that we were drawn to in the early 2000s. Sorry to break it to Arianna and the Gwen fans out there, but this show was terrible. Uninspired, awkward, and full of a crowd who, like me, was mainly there just for something to do. The crowd didn't even get excited for Hollaback Girl! I left three songs in.

Notice the hanging plastic bananas on stage

Day 4

After staying up way too late playing Blackjack and 3-Card Poker, day 4 started off rather slowly. What got me out of that sleepy rut was my excitement for that night's show. Not only was I attending the famous MGM Grand Garden Arena, I was also getting to see one of the all time greats, Bob Seger. Growing up my dad would always play classic rock in the car, and because of this Seger was a name that I knew early on. Even though I don't listen to too much rock these days, I was eager to see Seger (see what I did there) in Vegas on what may be his last tour ever. The dude absolutely rocked the house. He played for almost 3 hours with 2 encores and featured highlights from his incredible backing band throughout. It was refreshing to witness this caliber of talent after whatever I witnessed the night before at Gwen. 

Bob Seger and The Silver Bullet Band

My time in Vegas ended at one of the most underrated spots on the strip, the Skyfall Lounge. This bar sits on the top floor of The Delano Hotel at the south end of the strip. The Delano/Mandalay Bay is easily the tallest hotel on the strip so from the top, the views are incredible. Looking down on the lights below, it was wild to imagine the debauchery taking place on this Saturday night. Part of me wanted to join, but I figured I'd save that experience for a reunion in the future.  

Cue Adele

Day 5

You're probably starting to notice a pattern with these trips. I leave one city, show up to the next one later than expected, and then quickly have to find some food before I perish. Same old story when I arrived in Phoenix. Luckily for me, I stumbled upon a really cool spot just a couple blocks from my (terrible) motel. The Crescent Ballroom is a Mexican restaurant by day, concert venue by night. I was very impressed with their food and beverages. The burrito bowl I ordered put Chipotle to shame and the house margarita was perfect to shake off any remaining sleepiness. Also, the concert side of things brought in some sweet names throughout the year. The day I stopped in, they had a hardcore band on the bill but future shows that looked pretty cool were Black Moth Super Rainbow and Com Truise. 

Crescent Ballroom offering indoor, outdoor, and balcony seating

After lunch, I took an Uber out to Arizona State University to catch the inaugural season of the Arizona Hotshots at Sun Devil Stadium. The Hotshots are one of eight new teams under the Alliance of American Football (AAF), a brand new competitive football league created this year (2019). The AAF was founded with two main functions: 1) provide players out of college who didn't get drafted to the NFL the chance to continue playing competitive football and 2) to fill the lull between the end of the NFL season and beginning of college football. The game itself was pretty good but the attendance was sparse. I will say, the level of competition between the two teams on the field that night was much higher/better than previous "competitive" football leagues I'd seen in the past such as Arena Football or the XFL. With these games broadcasting on the NFL network, it seems that the higher-ups are buying into the vision of the AAF. Plus, the opportunity for fans to see old college football legends like Denard Robinson or Johnny Manziel is pretty exciting. I'm crossing my fingers AAF weathers the storm. 

AAF Season One

Day 6

For those who have been reading these recaps from the beginning, you may remember my failed attempts trying to get into Spring Training Stadiums during my Tampa trip. In Phoenix, my luck turned for the better. I was able to attend games at Camelback Ranch, home to the Chicago White Sox and LA Dodgers, and Surprise Stadium, home to the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals. For anyone who's a big fan of baseball, I highly suggest getting down to Phoenix or Tampa to see some teams play here in the Spring. The atmosphere was super chill, weather was near perfect in the lower 70s, and baseball wasn't too bad either. 

White Sox striking out at Camelback Ranch

Later in the night I returned to downtown Phoenix for a Suns game at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Despite the Suns residing in last place, this game was especially hype because it was against the number one team in the NBA, the Milwaukee Bucks. Milwaukee has been rallying behind the "Greek Freak," Giannis Antekokounmpo, while the Suns rely mainly on their young stud, Devin Booker. The two went at it on this Monday night, with a crowd that was electric from the tip. The Suns ended up pulling away at the end, taking down the #1 team. I know the season hasn't gone as the Suns would have liked, but what they displayed on this night was some playoff caliber basketball. 

Phoenix Suns v. Milwaukee Bucks at Talking Stick Resort Arena

Day 7

I woke up early my last day in Phoenix to check out Camelback Mountain. The Camelback Mountain hike(s) is a popular destination in Phoenix because it is close to the city center, offers a variety of hiking difficulty, and the views from the top are spectacular. I decided to scale the harder of the two hikes, Echo Canyon, because I'd done hikes in the past (Lake Louise) and figured this would be just like any other difficult terrain. I did make it to the top but sheesh this was no ordinary hike. I'd equate this "hike" to vertical rock climbing at times, and there were many moments along the path that got pretty sketchy. The slight risk did make the reward even sweeter once at the peak. My suggestion to you all if you ever find yourself at Camelback Mtn., make sure you have tons of water and proper hiking shoes.

Looking down from the top of Camelback Mtn.

For the last stop in PHX, I returned to Talking Stick for a Justin Timberlake concert. This was my second time seeing Justin Timberlake in concert, with the first being back in 2013 during his joint tour with Jay Z. Justin's most recent album, Man of the Woods, was a major disappointment in my opinion so I was interested to see how this accompanying tour went. Note to self: never doubt JT. This was one of the coolest shows I'd ever seen from a production standpoint. Justin and The Tennessee Kids performed on this stage that had a huge runway that snaked all the way to a smaller stage on the opposite end of the floor. The show was extremely choreographed with dancers, lights, projections, and intros specifically timed for different points in the show. One benefit of going to these events alone is that I can often find an empty seat closer to the stage. In this instance, my normal seats were behind the stage but I was able to sneak down to a seat about 4 rows up from the floor. From there, surrounded by some day one JT fans, I ended my trip on a high note. 

View from behind the stage at Justin Timberlake's Man of the Woods Tour

Final Thoughts

Despite it starting in 1931, this Houston Rodeo is ahead of its time. With how saturated the industry is getting these days with the seemingly endless music festivals, organizers need to better differentiate if they want to stay afloat. Pairing big time music acts with a rodeo and carnival is super unique. More festivals should look to this model just for the sake of staying interesting because there's not enough room/money for 20 Coachellas.

I don't want to say Vegas is overrated but I do think you have to come to terms with the fact that in order to have fun in that city, you have to spend a ton of money. It's basically an adult Chuck-E-Cheese with explicit images, high prices, and way too many people. Don't get me wrong, I had a blast during my couple days in LV, but three days was plenty.

Phoenix is legit. I know I was there before it gets unbearably hot & humid, but this is the type of place I feel that I could retire. Tons to do, nice people, great weather, and an interesting landscape. 

Check back next week for the continuation of this trip in the city of stars, Los Angeles. Until then, enjoy the beginning of Spring!


Check out the continuation of Trip #6 here!