Yeah, I went there. Had to. The curiosity got to me and I felt like going to Vegas would be some sort of weird social science experiment: how would a leftie, old-school kind of a gal handle the plastic of Sin City? So, after leaving San Luis Obispo, I headed east. (For the first time, in over a month, I was heading east!)
Since I was trying to be kind to my back, I have decided to not push driving over 4-5 hours per day. With that in mind, I pin-pointed a place to land between SLO and Vegas and some how came up with Barstow, CA. Maybe because I remembered it was on the old Route 66, or was in a song, I don’t know, but this is where I landed. At a crumbling Ramada just off the highway with hot tub that didn’t work. Sigh. But it was fine. I’ve kinda grown to like these cheap motels. They are the working peoples Ritz Carlton, and this is where I feel more at home.
At around 4:30 AM, I am awoken from my sleep by a small earthquake or tremor. This is the second time in the past week I have felt a tremor. Given the fact that a large earthquake just struck and killed over a thousand people in Indonesia this past week, I am happy to know I am traveling further east tomorrow, away from the fault line.
From Barstow, I headed to Vegas but knowing I would need some natural beauty before plunging into the filth, I headed further north on Rt. 15 towards Red Rock Canyon National Park for a hike and sort of palate-cleanse between Barstow and Las Vegas.
Red Rock is truly beautiful and truly red. This park inside the Mojave desert has colors ranging from tan to orange to deep red Aztec sandstone. There is the Calico mountain that really looks like a calico pattern, and deep inside gorge, you can see pictographs (paintings on rocks) and petroglyphs (scrapped or cut designs into rocks) created by the Anasazi peoples back around the time of Christ. These markings are mysterious but probably had practical purposes, such as marking the way to a good fishing spot. But still, not knowing and trying to figure the markings out is part of the fun of discovery.
Along the ride through the park, I see a van parked on the side of the road, and a man is standing next to the car, pointing. I slow to a stop and look down. There, a tarantula is walking across the roadway.
By 5 PM, I am braced and ready to enter Las Vegas. A short ride back to the city, Waze takes me down Sammy Davis Jr. Drive to the back entrance to Circus Circus, one of the older casino/resorts on the strip. And it’s age is showing.
I park in the lot and go in to register. It is bedlam. Circus Circus is a circus-circus of families from everywhere between here and LA. I remember that this is Columbus Day weekend, and that most of these families have taken a mini-vacation here, the only hotel on the strip that allows and caters to children. I sigh and wait in line.
Circus Circus is also one of the cheapest hotels in Las Vegas. This is a working class hotel and it has attracted a wide cross-section of Americans. I like this, but I am exhausted and the sound of crying children and the smell of french fries is starting to depress me and I haven’t even seen the gambling yet. I check in and head to my room on the 27th floor. There it is blessedly quiet but the windows are small, dirty, and look out onto construction, that is endless in this growing city in a desert. I sigh again, realizing this city is not only impossible to sustain but a pure example of both American ingenuity and stupidity all at the same time. The mob created it, and now it has become mall-ified and caters to the false dreams of the poor who are desperate to break free of their dog-eat-dog existence.
Las Vegas sells you a dream, but can’t and won’t deliver it. It is a con. And it is false to its core. From the retirees gambling away their retirement accounts, to the phony Venetian lagoons where tourists pretend it is “just as good as” the real thing.
I am determined to try and have a good time, though. I have read that one of my heroes, Jose Andres, the Spanish chef and food activist, has opened a new restaurant in one of the newer hotels. I decide to go to the bar there and have a “happy hour” meal of tapas.
Inside the modern space, I feel small and awkward. I don’t fit in with the swankly dressed tourists also seeking a special experience. But I find a booth at the bar and slip into the red leather banquette and try not to laugh. The menu is inspired, but also over the top, in the spirit of Vegas. I order several tapas, including a fois gras cotton candy lollypop (delicious) and grilled pulpo (octopus). The prices are half what they would be later, but I have timed it to arrive at happy hour, so I justify the splurge.
After dinner, I wander into the casino and sit down to play some slots. I last about 10 minutes and spend $5. That is all I need. I have absolutely no interest in watching number and symbols spin around endlessly, and so I leave.
I catch an Uber down to the Venetian to see what Vegas’ idea of Renaissance Italy looks like. Here they have condensed St. Mark’s tower, a canal, a palace and a church all into one hotel complex. They have sparred no expense in trying to replicate frescos and gilt lamps, but it all is so plastic that I can only manage a quick walk around and a few photos. I imagine most people don’t realize how offensively Americanized this version is, and so it suffices, but I can’t manage to even find this ironic or amusing.
Outside, I walk the strip back to Circus Circus, passing timed fountains and Del Taco stands and overgrown Walgreens, stocked high with condoms, booze, candy, and ibuprofen to handle the inevitable hangover.
The air along the strip stinks of raw sewage. This town has grown too fast to handle the waste of thousands of tourists. The smell only underscores the crass crap of the strip.
Then, I spy a couple in tuxedo and wedding dress waiting to cross the street. They are alone, and at first I think they are actors. But they are a young couple freshly married. I congratulate them as I pass but wonder privately if this marriage will last or crumble like the aging cement facade of Circus Circus.
I am back to my room by 9:30 and asleep by 10:30. The next morning, I rise, shower and get to my car as fast as possible. I can’t wait to escape this charade and get back to nature. I am headed to Zion National Park in Utah, and can’t get out of Dodge fast enough. But one last stop: The Chapel of the Bells. Here my neighbors, Ed and Joy were married over 30 years ago. I take a photo for them and text it to reassure them that it is still here.
So, maybe some Vegas marriages do last after all. And perhaps some beauty does exist here in a city that caters to the more base human needs. Love finds a way, even here.