The Defensive Subjective Guide to Las Vegas
"So where are you from?"
It's a foray into connections, experiences and people in common, and as such I generally find it better to give the list than to say "I grew up in Virginia" or "most recently from California."
So "grew up in Virginia, college near Philadelphia, then upstate New York, Philly, Las Vegas, San Francisco, then I was on tour in the Midwest."
There's always at least an eyebrow-lift on Vegas.
I didn't consider myself a Vegas-type person, nor really expected to ever go there, a couple of years ago.
Funny old dames, those fates.
Because then I lived in Las Vegas.
I had an address and a car and a job, considered myself a local and am still greeted as one when I go back.
There's a vast difference between the local culture of Vegas and the Strip experience that tourists get, and that difference is the source of my defensiveness.
Almost everyone who's been there as a tourist views Vegas as a bizarre phenomenon of capitalism or kitsch or decadence, and they're right.
It's not only that, though, and this "guide" is actually a chapter in what's become a small crusade, for me, to make people understand some of the reasons almost 500,000 people choose to live there, and why Clark County is exploding in population.
So it's a guide on a soapbox.
On wheels, the better to get around.
It floats, too.
If taken too far it might explode, but now we're getting into metaphors.
Greyhound and Amtrak have stations in downtown Las Vegas, and a plane can be seen going into or out of McCarran Airport any time of day and most of the night.
I've flown to and from Vegas several times, but my favorite way to approach the city is by car.
Because Las Vegas lies in a valley, the view coming in by road is about as good as by plane.
Before you come down the foothills of the McCullough Range from the south, though, or between Gass and Muddy Peaks from the north, you have to cross a good patch of desert.
If you're heading for Vegas you're probably on I-15, and this is one area of the country in which it doesn't pay to take the smaller highways.
Coming from Barstow you cross the Mojave, and that stretch of road has one radio station that runs two channels called "highway radio," because there's sure no one living out there.
At least one of the two programs is always honky-tonk country, and nothing else is really suited to the Mojave.
Within two hundred miles of Vegas there are billboards advertising cheap rooms and loose slots.
Coming in from the north, 15 crosses great expanses of empty Utah, much of which is canyon country, and passes right by Zion National Park.
As you come into view of Las Vegas Valley, the daytime vista is like a huge sandbox crowded with dusty nondescript toys, with a few shiny baubles that might be discarded Christmas decorations, seventies era.
The Stratosphere, similar to the Seattle Space Needle, is immediately visible for its height, and so is Mandalay Bay for its height, width and gold finish.
You're really seeing the three cities of Las Vegas and Henderson and Boulder City, but for most practical purposes it's all Vegas, and it's damn big.
At night the lights show it even larger, as during the day the most outlying neighborhoods fade into dust.
Driving through the emptiness of the desert on the way in is a sort of conceptual preparation for the huge sprawl in the valley, especially for an Easterner.
There's just lots of space to put stuff, and the city's layout reflects that.
All the major streets have six lanes, and residential ones generally have enough room for four cars abreast.
Besides the casinos there are few high-rise buildings because it's easier to build out than up.
Manhattan has rivers, Las Vegas has space.
The chances of any reader of this piece visiting Vegas are far greater than moving there, so I'll address the questions of tourism as best I can.
About gambling I know very little.
I played a quarter in a slot machine once, and thought 'now what?' after pulling the arm.
I'm a little too neurotic about money to want to learn.
The main thing to remember, according to people who do gamble, is that the house always wins; it's their business and they stack the deck accordingly, so set limits for yourself and go in to have fun rather than to win your next year's tuition.
I've haven't seen any of the continuous shows along the Strip, though from experience working in lighting design there I'd recommend them for the effects.
I did the lights for the opening of Storm at Mandalay Bay and heard that, money or not, it was pretty bad, but it was also still there when I was last in town, so it's been popular enough to run over a year.
The Cirque de Soleil runs Mystere at Treasure Island and O at the Bellagio, with tickets at about $100 for either show, and the Blue Man Group plays the Luxor at $60 or $70 a pop.
I did go to a concert at Mandalay Bay, and Vegas is a great town for music acts.
Everyone who's hot as well as everyone who used to be seems to play Vegas at some point, and again the effects are likely to be good.
I've also never seen a skin show or been to a strippers club, though it's common for women to do so.
Las Vegas has lately been returning to its Sin City persona after a period of family friendly Disneyfication.
Many of the major hotel/casinos along the strip are now running high class skin shows in their theaters without any pretense otherwise (La Femme is at the MGM), 'cause nothing sells like sex, after all.
Although prostitution is illegal in Clark County, folks.
You won't see any brothels advertised--just "dancers" and "escorts."
Likewise I've never been in one of the many marriage chapels, but I know that licenses are about $40 and wedding packages start around $100.
Most of the hotels have their own chapels (Canterbury Wedding Chapel is connected to the Excalibur and probably has a medieval theme), and the others include Little Church of the West Wedding Chapel, Affordable Annointed Wedding, Little White Chapel Drive-Through, Elvis Chapel, Hitching Post Wedding Chapel, and of course the Chapel of Love--two of those, in fact.
I wish now I'd shopped around some of them to get a look at the insides, but at the time their names (and existence) were about all I could handle.
Lodging in Las Vegas is eminently affordable, perhaps alone among major American cities.
You can get a room in a cheap motel for as little as $30 (and cheap motels, though you might want to ask to see the room first, are not to be sneezed at), and while those won't be right on the Strip there are many that are close.
On the Strip, rooms in the biggies are generally affordable, too--they have a lot of them and they're expecting to get your real money at the tables.
Rooms at the Luxor can be had for $70 during the week and $140 on weekends.
And if you tool in late at night the desk clerks are often ready to unload rooms for vastly reduced rates--one friend of mine got a penthouse suite at Treasure Island for about $60 one 2am.
Getting around Vegas is easy, for cars.
The grid, though the Strip cuts across it diagnally (and is posted as Las Vegas Blvd, not the Strip), is simple, most of the casinos have free parking garages, and everyplace else has an ample parking lot attached--the space thing.
Many of the major streets are named for the original casinos they run by, like the Tropicana, the Flamingo, the Sahara and Desert Inn, and even more have been named more recently for the newer casinos and venues, though once you head away from the Strip watch for Sands Ave to turn into Twain going east and into Spring Mountain Road going west.
If you've come without your own ride, either rent one or take taxis.
The Strip is long, and you'll miss a lot of it if you try to walk everywhere.
The buses are fine once you board them, but Vegas is just too spread out for public transit to really have a chance in hell.
If you do choose to watch your life creep by waiting for buses, they're $2 along the Strip, $1.25 everywhere else, and a transfer is good for two hours but is one-way only.
They do at least have a cool logo illustrating their name, CAT (Citizens Area Transit), but the prowling feline loses its charm when you have to allow two hours to make a twenty-minute trip across town.
However, many car rental agencies don't have the persnickety 25-or-older restriction, and several local joints will even rent to 18-year-olds.
You can get a small car for one day for $60, I believe.
And if you're just hopping around town, taxis are a good bet and will cost $5 to $10 to the major sites.
(Luxor cabs aren't connected with the Luxor hotel.)
Limousines are beyond my ken, SUVsines even more so.
Then there's what you're getting around.
In the city, the main tourist spots (or spreading blotches, perhaps) are the Strip and downtown.
Downtown Las Vegas went into decline after Bugsy Siegel and his gang put up the big casino-hotels that laid out the Strip, but it's been revived and turned into the Freemont Street Experience.
Smaller casinos like the Golden Nugget and Lady Luck are along Fremont, there's a big neon and light show there, and the street scene is more active and better for wandering.
The Strip runs from Mandalay Bay at its south end and turns onto the Fremont Street Experience somewhere past the Stratosphere.
Circus Circus has a big amusement park, and some free sideshow-type entertainment, and the Sahara, the Stratosphere, MGM and New York New York all have roller coasters.
There's a free pirate show at Treasure Island, which features two full-size ships, big pyrotechnics, and live actors who do the same show every half-hour from about 7 until midnight (the rapid descent from reperatory theatre into hell).
The Mirage runs a volcano, and the Bellagio a fountain show set to music--I heard "Singin' in the Rain" once, and "Appalacian Spring" was just strange.
The Bellagio is the most consciously high-class of the hotels, and has an open conservatory and art gallery too.
The Mirage, home of the ubiquitous Siegfried and Roy, generally has a tiger or lion hanging out in a viewing room near the entrance, and the MGM keeps lions to look at too.
The Venetian has a canal running through its shopping arcade, and you can take gondola rides and be serenaded by the striped-shirted gondoliers as you drift by Saks under a perfectly painted sky.
The Paris has a miniature Eiffel Tower you can go up, and the Luxor's peak shines a 3500-watt xenon light into the sky (it used to be visible in outer space, but the feds complained).
So much for the tourist scene.
Don't get stuck there; there's so much good, and less screamingly expensive, stuff beyond the Strip, starting with restaurants--mmmm.
A few places I used to frequent: the Mediterranean Cafe and Hookah Lounge, on Maryland at Flamingo, has good Middle Eastern food and hookahs to settle your meal and feel like a sheik.
The Crown and Anchor bar, on Tropicana at Maryland, serves English pub food and has a large selection of good beers on tap.
Koreana BBQue, on Tropicana and Eastern, is good, and Kyoto Sushi, on Eastern just south of 215, is divine.
The Rum Runner, on Tropicana at Spencer, is a neighborhood bar that does really good burgers.
There's a good Japanese noodle joint, whose name I don't remember, in the strip mall with blue neon at Twain and Swenson.
Toto's, on Tropicana east of Spencer, does good Mexican and has a margarita brunch on Sundays that is such a good institution I supported it as a civic duty.
On the subject of Mexican food in the Southwest, I'd never had coastal Mexican before I went to Las Vegas, and fish tacos stopped sounding odd to me after my first bite.
Last, but only because I'm using it as a segue, Carluccio's, next to the Liberace Museum (no idea) at Tropicana and Spencer, has great Italian food.
Have dinner at the bar and either Jim or Kelly will be behind it, both highly entertaining.
Jim is my favorite example of the way people in Vegas work.
He works the bar in Carluccio's three nights a week, teaches elementary school during the day and is a member of the Flying Elvises Skydiving Troupe on weekends--he also has a wife in the military and a little girl.
He's an example, not an anomaly; people in Vegas just work hard in general and tend to be very into their jobs.
It was easy for me to jump in as a lighting tech once I showed I knew my stuff (being female in a mostly male industry didn't hurt either), and I've never had as much fun working tech, or learned as much, as I did in Vegas.
There's a lot of money around, and the equipment is the best.
The first gig I worked there I learned to drive a big JLG lift around the Sands convention space- gods, that was cool.
But I digress.
So people in Vegas work hard; they also play hard, and this brings us to the crux of my argument in favor of Las Vegas: the surrounding country.
A lot of people who move to Vegas come for Red Rock Canyon; most of the high riggers I've know there got into that business through rock-climbing.
Red Rock is about twenty miles west of town; just take Charleston out.
You can drive around the park on a tennish-mile loop, and there are lots of small excursions to make along the way.
The first two pull-offs are easily the most spectacular, at the Calico Vistas.
The rock faces are Aztec sandstone, with red and grey contrasting from a collision, about 65 million years ago, of two of the earth's plates, which formed the Keystone Thrust Fault.
The red color comes from iron in the rocks, and it's iron oxide and calcium carbonate that fused sands into the hard sandstone, which is climbable.
There are lots of guides, written and human, for climbing at Red Rock.
Bouldering and plain clambering are also excellent ways to check out the Calicos.
I've almost given up photographing out there in favor of just pouring color and texture straight into my head.
There are several springs and creeks at Red Rock, and at Willow Spring there's a picnic area, and also a good cliff and anchor-tree for rappelling.
There are also petroglyphs at Willow and Red Springs, and I've heard there are pictographs somewhere in Red Rock too.
Willow Spring has several big roasting pits as well, and some signposts on human habitation in the canyons.
The Southern Paiute were in and around Red Rock when whites showed up, and pottery shards show that the Anasazi were there before them.
The Pine Creek Canyon trail leads to a pioneer ruin that's still extant.
Current residents include desert tortoises, coyotes, lizards, kangaroo rats and burros, all of which I've seen, and desert bighorn, bobcats and rattlesnakes, which I haven't.
The water and relative coolness of Red Rock support a large variety of animals, birds and plants.
Raptors are often visible hanging out on high air currents (the loggerhead shrike spears its prey on cactus spines, and sometimes leaves them to dry like raisins before eating them), and the cactus wren builds nests among the spines of the cholla cactus (hopefully not the same cactus the shrike is using to shish-kebob).
Joshua trees and rabbitbrush show up by the roads, and the spring I lived there I saw the desert bloom--lots of different smallish yellow flowers, larger orange desert poppies, and big fushcia blossoms on the cactus.
Intense, and like a whole new season in the same way the desert was like a new dimension, coming from the East.
Valley of Fire is north of Vegas, and is also good for hiking and camping.
In the summer (which starts early and ends late), one way to enjoy the desert is to drive in in the evening, camp overnight, enjoy the morning and book out before noon.
It really depends on what you can handle, though.
The heat in the Southwest doesn't bother me; the dry air does make a difference.
I find the brightness more oppressive, and that less so outside the city.
Sand doesn't spit the rays back the way asphalt seems to.
Sunglasses and sunscreen are a must, but if you drink a lot of water you're unlikely to be anywhere near as uncomfortable as in New York in the summer (or Boston, or Philadelphia, or Washington--what is it with eastern cities?
Oh, and Chicago...)
, where the humidity sticks your clothes to you and makes walking seem more like wading.
Out in the desert sweat evaporates as soon as it hits the air.
At Valley of Fire, one of the neat hikes is the one to Mouse's Tank, which catches rain and lies among a series of tight and twisted canyons of deep-orange sandstone.
Mouse was a Paiute who had trouble with the whites and/or other Indians, depending on the story, and hid several times from troops sent after him in those canyons, before he was shot in 1897.
He picked a good hiding place for confusing followers, and the markers there today are very welcome.
There are several basins and scaleable faces to clamber around, though take care because this sandstone is the somewhat crumbly kind.
An observation by the friend I took out to Valley of Fire last time: "What I always like about places like this is, even after you leave the area and they're not in your immediate consciousness every day, they're still here, and they have been here longer than you can even imagine.
'My whole life'--that's nothing to places like this."
Valley of Fire is near Lake Mead, which, along with the Colorado River, offers some great canoeing and kayaking.
We used to put in at Overton Beach at night and paddle for several hours under the stars, which you're far enough from Vegas to see.
Then we'd camp on a beach (pretty easy to find a good one, though you might paddle into tamarus shoots in the shallows), and go further in the morning before waiting out the midday sun under a canopy.
Take your own shade; a lightweight tarp and collapsible poles are just the thing for noontime.
Midday is a good time go swimming, too, though in the spring the water is still quite cold.
Lake Mead is the result of the Hoover Dam, which is well worth a look itself.
To go up the Colorado, Willow Beach near the dam is a good put-in, and the canyon walls provide shade as well as some amazing scenery.
Mount Charleston lies beyond Red Rock, and Lee Canyon Ski Area is in the Mt.
The Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon are also near enough for a few-days trip, and a friend of mine leads canoe trips on the Green River at least every couple of months.
In addition to the strong outdoors tendency, Las Vegas has the most prevalent wake 'n' bake culture I've encountered.
San Francisco, where I would have placed my drug bets based on history/stereotypes, has just said no compared to Vegas folk.
It's often really good stuff, too, and comparable to good mushrooms.
I don't know where a visitor would go for happy herb, though; it's a local perk.
Most people in Las Vegas aren't natives, but I've never met anyone else, in my travels around the country, who's lived there and left.
It's odd to write a guide to Vegas; I probably never would have gone if I hadn't happened to work a gig there.
But it's also the only city I feel I can write any kind of guide to, though I lived in both Philadelphia and San Francisco longer.
Las Vegas, of all the places in the States I've lived and been to, is the only one in which I actively partook of the city and surrounding area enough to have a real sense of it and of its people.
I'll probably never live there again, but it's one of the places I'm most glad to have lived and to have known.
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Content © copyright 2002 by Laura Pyle. All rights reserved.