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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Father-Son Road Trip (before college) 2019

July 3, 2019

LAS VEGAS— Road trips have existed since the wheel was invented. In the Italian villa we take our travel groups to in Tuscany (a road trip, by the way), there exists a road, just outside the villa, called Via Roma. It is the road that connects Bologna to Rome through Florence. It is the road that Michelangelo walked to Rome on his way to paint the Sistine Chapel. That road is so old that when Jesus was walking around in Jerusalem, there were also people walking on the Via Roma. The town in which we set up camp, Tavernelle, was named for the taverns and inns along the road which sheltered weary road trippers for the night.

In post-war America, during the dawning of motels and motor courts, when Holiday Inn and Howard Johnson’s ruled the roost. Families ventured out and explored America. It was easier to get there, and it was easier to stay at your destination. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope always seemed to be on the road to somewhere. It was ingrained into our culture and our collective wanderlust has only strengthened since then.

For the Boomers of my generation, the modern definition of a road trip came from the movie Animal House and was representative of a drunken jaunt in some poor schmucks’ car to a random location. In that type of road trip, it didn’t matter where you were going, but how you were getting there, and who you were with.

I am currently on a different kind of road trip. To me, it’s the best road trip. It’s a father-son road trip.

My son just graduated from high school and is weeks away from beginning his college career. He is about to go through one of the most significant changes in the entire life journey. He’ll be leaving the nest and will start his voyage towards self-supporting adulthood. I’m looking forward to the self-supporting part, but not so much about the moving away from home part. There is no other time in a young man’s life that can approach the uniqueness of that freshman year of college. I am excited for him, though the excitement is a little bittersweet. We are close, always have been. I will miss him, and I am smart enough to know that the dynamic is about to change forever. I wanted one last journey together before everything changes.

I thought for weeks about where to take him and what we could do together before he officially becomes a college freshman. Neither of us hunt much, so any kind of remote Canadian or Alaskan trip wasn’t going to work. We fish once or twice a year, but it’s nothing that we care enough about to go spend a week doing it. We love to snow ski, but most of the snow has melted, and the ski resorts are closed for the summer. I thought about whitewater rafting, we both love that, but we are taking a family trip this summer with his mom and sister, and I didn’t want to end up doubling up on an activity.

The boy and I share several interests— movies, music, football, food, and travel. In all of those areas we agree on way more than we disagree, and with a trip to Las Vegas we could knock out three of the five. Unfortunately, football season doesn’t begin until he’ll already be sleeping in a college dorm, and we can— and do— go to the movie theatre back home, anytime.

What could we possibly do for this last father-son road trip before college? That dilemma is what ended up putting us in an unusual location for a father-son road trip— Las Vegas. Some might be thinking what kind of dad does that? It would be me. After thinking for a while, it made perfect sense.

I don’t drink, and he’s too young to drink legally. I used to gamble a little when the casinos first opened in Mississippi. Though I wasn’t very good at it and, never came close to what one would call a high roller. Once my children were born, I couldn’t justify giving a gambling concern any money that might need to go to their education fund. I never made a conscious decision to never gamble again, I just quit. I have no moral objection to it. If someone wants to help build these mammoth hotels and attractions with their hard-earned money— and make no mistake, all of these beautiful hotels with over-the-top amenities are built because they were able to successfully separate people from their money— go for it.

So, our love for food, music, and travel could be satiated to one not-so-sin-filled father-son road trip to Las Vegas. The travel part was easy, we could visit the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, and Zion National Park, all easily accessed from our home base on the Las Vegas Strip. The music part of the trip was a no-brainer. Paul McCartney was going to be in town. I share a love of music with both of my children, and even though they have their own specific tastes with current music (as do I), they also love and appreciate the music that came before. I have tried to do by best to expose them to the music that came before. I have also tried to take them to concerts to see artists and groups before it’s too late.

I think often how great it would have been if I would have seen Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, or Duke Ellington in concert. They were still performing when I was young. I never saw Muddy Waters or Willie Dixon either. When my kids were born, I pledged to never miss an opportunity to see a modern master. At five-years old, each of them could listen to a Beatles song and tell me which of the four was singing the lead. We love music in our family. It is ever-present in our house and we are all passionate about the control of the mix.

I have seen a few concerts with my daughter, some with the entire family, but my son and I have been the main concert goers. Together we have seen The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, Robert Plant, Gregg Allman, KISS, and Paul McCartney, in addition to dozens of other artists from several different genres. His senior present from his mom and me was a four-day pass to Bonnaroo. This Las Vega father-son road trip was his second time to see McCartney (my fifth).

Surprisingly enough, outside of New York, Chicago, and San Francisco (New Orleans doesn’t count because we are there all of the time), Las Vegas has become an excellent restaurant city. The cheesy all-you-can-eat buffets are still here, along with the high-roller prime rib joints, but there are also world-class restaurants managed by world-class chefs and restaurateurs in this town.

It started in the 1990s when the Wolfgang Pucks of the world were courted to town. In the early 2000s, all of the Food Network guys started setting up shop and the dining level increased. But, to my thinking, it wasn’t until Thomas Keller opened Bouchon in the Venetian, that the practice of coming to Vegas to operate a satellite was legitimized. They are all here now. And, unlike the early days when chef concepts came to town, they are well run and pretty close to the motherships. FCor a father and son who are both passionate about the restaurant business, this is an accessible Mecca.

We have eaten our way though town. We have seen great shows and listened to great music. We have ventured out of town to see the Grand Canyon and other natural and manmade wonders. But what we have done most of all is spend time together, just the boy and me. He asked me yesterday if we could do this every year, and I told him the answer to that question will always be, “yes.” That question, alone, was worth the price of the trip.


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