My 1965 Winter Vacation in Las Vegas and Colorado
With the end of another holiday season, I found myself reminded of Christmas vacations from my childhood. Some holidays fade with time, but others stand out vividly because they were unique. In December of 1965, my parents took a vacation to Colorado and Nevada with stops in California and New Mexico also on the schedule. It was a summer vacation in winter, and it was fun and memorable. My folks arranged with our teachers at Saint John’s School for us to begin Christmas break a few days early, and we traveled by car to our winter destinations. I offer my recollections of the Christmas of 1965, with some help in establishing chronology coming from my mother’s diary.
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The winter of 1965
We left Lawrence at 1:30 AM for Las Vegas, Nevada. I’m not certain why my father preferred driving at night, but it was a habit I took from him and now consider an essential ingredient of road trips. It was a crystal clear night with countless stars visible in the night sky. The radio played Dean Martin’s “Chapel in the Moonlight”, which is still a road tunes staple for me.
Interstate 70 was the quickest way to get to Las Vegas, but it snaked through the Rocky Mountains and would have been treacherous in December. The famous Route 66 was a more reliable road to traverse in winter and we headed west toward Albuquerque, New Mexico. Approximately 150 miles into our journey, the car picked up a nail and blew a tire. The spare tire was stored in a panel underneath the trunk, packed full of suitcases which had to be removed to get to the tire and jack. I’m sure it took considerable strength to jack up a car filled with kids, but my father never suggested we get out and wait in the cold to make it easier for him—a touching gesture I never forgot.
When we reached Albuquerque, we stayed at the Motor Horn Motel in the middle of the city, just around the corner from a tiny diner similar in style and ambiance to “Mel’s Diner” in the television series “Alice”. I don’t know how my parents discovered this place, but it served chili everyone raved about. I was allergic to beans so chili was off limits, and unfortunately there was nothing else served there fit for human consumption. I threw up on a hamburger. In subsequent visits, I ordered a fifty cent box of Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes….
The next day, we drove north toward Las Vegas, Nevada. Billboard signs along the side of the road counted down miles to the Stardust, the Riviera, and other hotels on the strip. The signs stirred our excitement after a long and tiresome drive, and we watched the odometer roll over each mile as the car raced through the desert toward our destination. Reservations at a hotel with a casino were not a consideration with small children in tow and we stayed at a place called the Valley Motel, approximately 10 blocks from downtown. We ate dinner at Bob Baskin’s Restaurant, a homey place that offered traditional foods kids would enjoy. My parents liked the food as well, although Dad once got upset with the service and referred to the place as “Bob Bastard’s”. They served a chicken pot pie my brother liked, and their hot chocolate was loaded with whipped cream on top. The walls were filled with photographs of celebrity guests with handwritten notes of appreciation and friendship to the owner.
My father preferred gambling at the El Cortez, a modest but historic hotel and casino built in Las Vegas in the 1950’s. This wasn’t the only place he tried his luck at the poker tables or slot machines, but it was his main stop because he was lucky there. Meanwhile, my mother frequently took us shopping. There were no malls or shopping centers yet, but Fremont Street had JC Penney’s and other solid places to shop. Penney’s actually occupied two buildings—you stepped out the back door and crossed an alley to find the children’s clothing department. There were also smaller clothing stores and souvenir shops nearby, so it was easy to spend a half-day browsing or selecting clothes for school.
On Christmas Day, Mom and Dad woke us early in the morning to give us Christmas presents. It wasn’t the most traditional Christmas ever, but nice nonetheless. Among the gifts I received was a GI Joe I still have in my possession. After we opened our gifts, we drove west to California and Disneyland. It wasn’t a surprise, but it was a wonderful Christmas gift. The weather was warm enough to make the day enjoyable. We rode on the Matterhorn, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and the Mad Tea Party “cups and saucers”. We saw the “It’s A Small World” attraction for the first time—a boat ride winding through a series of rooms that displayed dolls representing all countries and cultures of the world. The dolls sang “It’s A Small World” in many different languages, emphasizing that we are all alike, despite differences in appearance and culture. It was a point eloquently made and driven home by this overly memorable tune. We left the park that night exhausted and happy.
The next day we intended to visit the Griffith Park Planetarium. My brother was interested in astronomy and wanted very much to see it. Like the Griswold’s visiting Wally World in “National Lampoon’s Vacation”, however, when we arrived we saw a sign that told visitors the planetarium was closed on Mondays. We left in disappointment, and there was no moose to punch to make us feel better. We visited several other tourist spots before returning to Las Vegas, where we remained for several more days. We ate good meals and played arcade games in the hotels. In the heart of Sin City, we enjoyed a nice family vacation.
On December 28, we left Las Vegas. We ate lunch en route at the Lumberjack Café, where “heavenly chicken” was featured on the menu. We tried it, and Mom remarked that heavenly chicken tasted like hell. We stopped in Albuquerque again for another bowl of chili—my personal hell. I didn’t throw up a second time, though, so the Sugar Frosted Flakes did their job.
Before we returned home, we headed north to Denver and visited my older sister and her family. They lived in a tiny house that suggested money was in short supply, but they cheerfully welcomed us into their home. They even gave us Christmas presents—a touching gesture from a struggling young couple with kids of their own. My most vivid memories include one particular meal at their house; when my sister told her kids to clean their plates, her daughter waited for just the right moment to grab a handful of mashed potatoes and lob it onto my plate.
On New Year’s Eve, we visited my Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Harold in Fort Lupton, Colorado. They owned a liquor store in town and lived behind it, an arrangement that fascinated me. With mirrors and bells on the front door, they kept their store open for business while enjoying the comforts of home. Dorothy suffered from arthritis and her fingers were bent and gnarled. Harold was quiet and moved slowly, and their infirmities made them seem old. They were kind to us but I didn’t know them very well, so these reunions were somewhat dull for me. Dorothy and Harold had nothing in their home of interest to children either, so there was little for kids to do when we were there. My brother and I were allowed to drink Coca-Cola or strawberry soda and we enjoyed that, but we were bored and ready to leave by mid-afternoon. We headed back to Denver for a New Year’s Eve celebration.
That evening, my sister took us all to a party held at the home of a friend. My brother and I were ushered into a bedroom where all the children of other guests played. We stood with our backs to the wall without speaking and watched in horror as a loud, overweight child indulged in mock wrestling matches with his friends. This ugly, red-faced boy shouted and sweated through the entire evening, and with a relief normally reserved for executive pardons granted to death row inmates, we were freed several hours later to return home.
We left for Lawrence on New Year’s Day. The weather was good, although there was snow on the ground throughout Kansas. Our wintertime vacation was enjoyable, but it was nice to return to the normalcy of home. There were still a few days left before school resumed, and they were well spent in the company of neighborhood friends eager to show us what they received for Christmas.
Thanks for reading
And so the 1965 holiday season ended for us. 1966 would be a year of great change for my family, and these types of trips were eventually limited to summers. The merging of the holiday season and family vacation was fun, and it was an occasion I will always remember. I thank you, the reader, for indulging my childhood memories. I hope yours are as pleasant.
A Vacation Update
It has been several years since I wrote these words, and more than five years since I have taken a vacation. Responsibilities, finances and opportunity have kept me from traveling throughout the United States or abroad. The length of time that has passed since my last vacation has forced me to value the memories of vacations more than ever.
I am grateful for the opportunities to travel that I have enjoyed, and I hope to find the resources to enjoy traveling again in the future. I have been from California to Florida, from Texas to Canada, and lots of places in-between. I have seen the majesty and beauty the United States has to offer. I have stood before Mt. Rushmore and flown by helicopter to the Grand Canyon. I have been to Disneyland and Las Vegas. I have enjoyed fishing in the mountains of Colorado. I have stood with my feet in the Pacific Ocean. I have eaten fine meals in the best restaurants and dined on cheeseburgers at a Dairy Queen. I've seen Indianapolis, Chicago, Oklahoma City, Lincoln, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. I've also spent time in tiny mountain towns like Grand Lake, Colorado and Melrose, Montana.
The memories are plentiful and vivid. The memories are of wonderful moments spent with family and friends. I have grown through my experiences and have become a more well-rounded individual. Traveling is a magnificent gift that should be experienced and enjoyed by everyone. The opportunities to learn and experience moments that will never be forgotten cannot be understated. My travels have been limited compared to some, but its influence on my life has been enormous.
It is my sincere wish that everyone has the opportunity to see and explore this beautiful world we live in. Happy travels.
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