There was no F-bomb-laden complete meltdown at the airport rental car counter, nor an interesting hotel bed scene, nor a near-calamitous stretch of driving the wrong way down the interstate.
But without question, Pat Mueller had a real-life version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles (Warning: Link NSFW but some classic Steve Martin), with a perfect ending that still got him to Las Vegas in time for the NCAA tournament’s monster tipoff Thursday morning.
The tale actually started back in January, when Mueller first booked the trip that would mark his fourth straight year coming to Vegas for this huge hoops weekend.
“I thought I booked March 15-19,” he said Thursday afternoon from his comfortable reserved seat at The Mirage sportsbook. “But oh no, I booked February 15-19. On Valentine’s Day, February 14, I get an email stating that I can check in for my flight. So I realize my mistake, and it’s already cost me extra money to come.”
But he got the change handled and the story jumps to a month later, Wednesday afternoon in his office in Columbia, South Carolina, hours before his 4:40 p.m. ET nonstop flight out of Charlotte, North Carolina. He’d already checked in online, but he was still getting some work done before the big trip.
“I had a client pop in unannounced and the time it took probably cost me missing my flight,” he said. “I was checking a bag and it was too late to do that when I got to the airport. I thought I’d be able to make the flight and have the bag come later, but they said you can’t fly without your bag.”
Fortunately, there was another nonstop at 6:30, and though Mueller was on standby, the gate agent was so certain that he would get on that flight that she took his bag and sent it through to be loaded onto the plane.
“So I don’t get on that flight, but my bag does,” he said, laughing. “Then you roll to the 8:30 p.m. flight.”
He’s again on standby, as are others, and none of them make it. Now, he’s getting desperate, looking for solutions that don’t leave him in Charlotte overnight Wednesday.
“I saw a flight at 10 p.m. to Phoenix, so I got the representative to get me on that flight. The plan was to rent a car in Phoenix and drive to Vegas,” Mueller said of what would have been a 4.5-hour post-flight drive. “I called every single rental car company in Phoenix – Alamo, National, Enterprise. No rental cars available. And I couldn’t get a flight from Phoenix to Vegas either.”
Now, it’s time to start getting really creative.
“I went back to the gate agent and said, ‘What are my choices?’ She said she could get me on a 10:39 p.m. flight from Charlotte to Los Angeles, and then an 8:30 a.m. flight from L.A. to Las Vegas,” Mueller recounts. “Which would mean I’d miss the first games.”
Indeed, the first couple tips come between 9 and 10 a.m. PT, when Mueller would either be in the air, going to baggage claim or getting a cab to The Mirage. But he really had no other options.
“I kept saying, ‘Get me as far west as possible.’ I didn’t want to spend the night in Charlotte and start all over Thursday morning,” he said. “So I said OK. And as I sat down on that flight, a guy across the aisle had missed the last Vegas flight out of Charlotte, as well. And he was pissed. I said, ‘Hey, you’re going to Vegas too, right?’ He said yes, and that he has priority with Enterprise, and there was a car waiting for him in L.A. And he said I was welcome to ride with him – somebody I’d never met.”
That guy was Casey Holt from Rhode Island, a Providence fan, with fate stepping in to connect a couple of hoops fans in their quest to get to Vegas in time for Thursday’s 16-game NCAA marathon. But remember, this is “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” There was a little more trouble to come, in the form of road closures due to construction.
“We had no problem getting the rental car. The problem was getting on the interstate,” Mueller said. “It was 1 a.m., and both interstate entrances were blocked, right outside the airport. So we had to redirect.”
Then they had to blast across the Mojave Desert in the middle of the night, in search of the Vegas oasis.
“We got here at like 5:30 in the morning,” he said. “I made my bets this morning before the games, then went to the airport and got my bag.”
"It's all my fault, by being late in the first place.”
Oh yeah, the bag. It had already been in Vegas for hours, shipped on that 6:30 Wednesday night flight.
About 24 hours after his adventure began, now relaxing in his chair alongside a couple buddies, Mueller looked no worse for the wear, and insisted he felt the same.
“I got a little bit of sleep in the car. I’m fine,” he said, while pointing out the destination and the event provide all the energy one could need. “This is the greatest four days. I’m on adult spring break.”
All that was missing was a train. And pillows.
Patrick Everson is a Las Vegas-based senior writer for Covers. Follow him on Twitter: @Covers_Vegas.