My friends asked the logical question, because I don't gamble or drink alcohol, and I'm a bit of a nature boy:
"Why are you taking your vacation in Las Vegas of all places?"
Answer: "Because it was cheap".
And there you have it. I'm cheap. Sad but true. Actually, I'm poor, and there is a difference; that's what I keep telling my girlfriend, anyway. But when it came time for a much needed vacation, I couldn't pass up the deal: round trip, non-stop airfare from DCA to LAS, plus a one week's hotel stay on The Strip, plus a rental car with unlimited miles, all for about $700 per person.
Giddy up! Vegas here I come!
The first thing I noticed about Vegas is that it's changed quite a bit from the last time I was there, nearly twenty years ago. The old Vegas consisted of cheesy hotel casinos, organized crime and $4.99 all-u-can-eat buffets. The new Vegas consists of Disney-esque resorts, organized slime and $24.99 all-u-can-eat buffets.
During my first visit, Vegas mega-mogul Steve Wynn (a one-time Bingo parlor operator) had just opened The Mirage, ushering in the new era of absolutely-nutso hotel casino resorts, replete with their various forms of fantasy exhibits: indoor forests, outdoor volcanoes, extinct tigers living in plastic houses, artificial lakes, pirate ships and iconic replicas. The Mirage was the buzz of the town at the time, but today, it clearly rests in the shadow of the newer endeavors such as Paris Las Vegas, Wynn Las Vegas, The Bellagio (another Wynn project), The Venetian and New York, New York.
In one of the darkest corners of this shadow lay the unfortunate hotel where my girlfriend (we'll call her "Roxanne") and I were to make our home for the week. I say unfortunate because it quickly became clear that the expression, "you get what you pay for" is not just an empty cliché. The Excalibur, built shortly after the Mirage was completed, clearly had seen better days. At least I hope that's the case; it would be even more depressing if this hotel was created as we found it, in an effort to provide the discerning Las Vegas customer with the finest in dingy.
After Roxanne discovered a fingernail clipping resting against the bedside table, and I discovered our view was of a backhoe in a construction area (I said backhoe, a-huh-huh-huh), we were moved to a much more palatable location with a splendid vista of New York, New York. Truthfully, I was pretty happy with the room, considering the price, but The Excalibur continued to show its age (and its neglect) throughout our stay. Dirty dishes and glasses remained in hallways for days, as did random pieces of tissue and other miscellaneous whatnot containing random DNA. The ugly hallway carpet smelled like a cross between grandma's secret crotch problem and the basement of that scary neighbor who appears to take hygiene optionally.
If that wasn't bad enough, we were constantly bombarded with hard sell sales pitches for time shares every time we sauntered through the casino. These intrusive souls with their most unfortunate jobs took up their posts in strategic locales, insuring that you absolutely HAD to run into them several times a day. Any heterosexual couple walking together (married or not) was a target. It starts innocently enough:
"Hi there!" (Picture a flight attendant on crystal meth.) "Where are you all from? Where are you staying? Would you like to get comps and free tickets to shows?"
Well golly gee, my new friend! Of course we would! And you're just going to give them to me because I'm just that fabulous, right? Uh, no.
"All you have to do is show up at such-and-such a place at such-and-such a time and sit throw a REALLY hard sell sales pitch to buy time-shares. We'll give you a croissant and a cup of coffee for the three hours of your time. If you agree to fork over several thousand dollars of your hard earned money to annually purchase vacation time at this cookie cutter condo, we'll give you free tickets to some show."
To be fair, it wasn't just The Excalibur that employed these vultures; they were everywhere. The swankier casinos were more subtle about it, but they were there. There was even a very official looking booth planted right on the sidewalk along the strip that read "VEGAS INFORMATION CENTER." Silly me, I thought the fine folks at the Las Vegas chamber of commerce had set up this helpful stand with non-affiliated employees to help me enjoy my stay in their fine city.
Nope. Just another time-share spider web. "Let's get these folks some comps!" the man confidently announced, just prior to pushing their "fabulous billion dollar property" called Tahiti Village on us for about 15 minutes. Comp Boy was quite disappointed to discover (after his exhaustive sales pitch) that we were not married, nor did we live under the same household, thus legally voiding us for consideration. We quickly learned to announce this fact up front during the fifty additional times we were assaulted, escaping their talons for the remainder of the trip.
"We're not married" became Roxanne's knee-jerk mantra. I preferred, "Cast ye off, minion of Satan! The power of Christ compels you!" That pretty much stopped them in their tracks.
Most people, I suppose, go to Las Vegas primarily for the gambling, and naturally, the casinos are the main attraction. However, one description kept on creeping into my head as I ambled through the caverns of blinking lights and beeping machines:
It's painful to watch an aging, rural bump on a log stare listlessly - with a frighteningly blank expression unique to slot machine addicts – into a bleeping screen of moving numbers and symbols, accompanied by a menthol cigarette in their non-handle-pulling arm (with an inch of ash dangling precariously to the ever-encroaching nub) and a gin and tonic resting close by. At 7:36 AM.
This was not me. I needed to get away.
The first order of business was to pay a visit to the Pinball Hall of Fame. I had heard about this Mecca of the Silver Ball prior to my arrival, and couldn't wait to revisit the machines of my youth. Here was the rarest of businesses; designed for fans, maintained by people passionate about maintenance, not for profit, but for the pure enjoyment of people who love pinball. There are about 200 machines from all eras, spanning from the 1950's to present day, from which there are precious few machines (click here for a photo). For a kid who grew up in arcades in the early 80's, this was a highly nostalgic experience; I could hardly believe such a place existed. Talk about a kid in a candy store.
Almost as entertaining as the games themselves was the highly opinionated owner and operator, Tim Arnold, along with his sidekick, referred to only as "The Hippie." Both appeared to be in their late 40's or early 50's and had the look of men who were, at least at one time in their lives, not afraid of better living through chemistry. After operating a highly successful arcade in Michigan, Tim took his earnings and moved to Vegas and decided to do something good with his dough. All of the profits from the PHoF go to charity, chiefly to The Salvation Army. Mr. Arnold spoke in glowing terms of how The Army was about "boots on the ground," describing them as the real heroes during the aftermath of Katrina.
It was clear that he really and truly cared, and one could not help but respect his dedication and intensity. He said something very interesting about Las Vegas, which I would find to be absolutely true as my stay wore on. "Take away the neon lights," he said, "and Vegas is just another bug shit town."
As to why he set up shop in a road side mall 30 blocks east of The Strip and not in a casino: "Casino owners are all about maximizing revenues per square foot, so we don't appeal to them. They're basically bar owners in nicer clothes."
He made another statement that has stuck with me ever since: "America will get the society that it deserves." This was in reference to lots of things, but most notably to the aging and crumbling infrastructure of America at large. Arnold is fanatical about regular maintenance; maintaining his pinball machines so that they play just like you remember them is clearly his labor of love, and the nationwide lack of mechanical preservation of telephone poles, water towers and the like disturbs him greatly. He warned that America soon will "get like Mexico; everything's dirty and broken, and no one wants to spend money to fix it … they just make cosmetic fixes so things look okay. It's all about profit this quarter; no one is thinking long term."
Here lies the great metaphor of Las Vegas; the outsides are wonderful and glorious, but the insides are evil and soulless. Perhaps the best thing about the Las Vegas Strip is the view of it as you fly in to the airport. Once you're in it, you're in the cesspool. The goal is to make the outside seem like a wonderland of fun and excitement, then once you've been lured in, they filet and sauté you.
As I made the sojourn from casino to casino, I discovered that, no matter how different they looked on the outside, they were basically all the same on the inside. Sure, the carpet had different patterns and the ceilings were painted different colors, but in the end, they were just big rooms that removed a man's inner spirit and inner wallet.
Another thing they all have in common? No balconies. Not a single hotel room on the Las Vegas Strip has a balcony, and the windows are rigged so that they open only a few inches. Perhaps the casino owners don't want their customers to jump after they lose their children's college fund at the craps table. That way, they'll have a chance to get a hold of themselves and return to the casino floor to try and "get it back," en route to taking out a second mortgage.
The new trend, clearly obvious at New York, New York and Paris Las Vegas, is high ceilings and restaurants adjacent to the gambling floor, in an effort to make the gaming seem kinder and gentler, I suppose. But in then end, not much differentiated one from the other.
But there is another side to Las Vegas, a beautiful, rarely talked about side, and I was determined to find it. Nature Boy to the rescue!
Roxanne and I woke before sunrise one morning, and we decided that watching the sunrise on The Strip would be a nice way to start the morning. So we drove out towards the mountains, but instead of perching for a view of the city, we hiked into the desert on the other side of the mountains. It shocked me how quickly the population vanished, giving way to unspoiled, uninhabited terrain as far as the eye could see. We watched the sun peek out over the craggy landscape surrounding Lake Mead, snuggled upon a rocky mesa that seemed miles away from civilization. You just never see anything like that out east, and we loved every minute of it. It was probably the highlight of the trip, to be quite honest.
A few days later, we discovered Red Rocks Canyon, a scant 30 minute drive from our hotel. Again – we can't be this close to Vegas! I felt like I was in The Land of the Lost (sans Marsha, Will and Holly) as I made the two hour hike into Ice Box Canyon. There was so much to explore there; I only regret the lack of time we had to spend in this amazing state park.
The next day took us to the Moapa Indian Reservation which led us into the Valley of Fire State Park. I was enthralled, but Roxanne? Not nearly as much. "You've seen one red rock, you've seen them all," she mused.
From there, we made a run through the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, which is pretty much the dictionary definition of "scenic drive." That led directly into the Hoover Dam, which was as spectacular as it looked on "Modern Marvels." The trip into the belly of the dam was one of the few things in Vegas that is well worth the money.
It took less than an hour to drive back to our hotel. Finally, I was happy in Vegas. Truth be told, I have absolutely no desire to go back. But if I do, screw The Strip - I'm staying at the Main Street Station. Think Wild West saloon meets friendly casino, with the last, great inexpensive buffet in town. Everything was clean and soft; the bathrooms were spotless, Satan appeared to live elsewhere, and I'll remember that $5.99 breakfast for a long time to come.
Evan Redmon is a manager of a public golf course in Washington, D.C. and writes a few things about stuff sometimes. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org if you really want.