Las Vegas is loud. Everywhere you go there is music blaring over the intercom: in the airport, in restaurants, casinos, hotel lobbies, buffets, and stores. And the milling crowds of people talk louder to be heard over the music. You can’t seem to get away from the noise. On our recent trip to Las Vegas to escape the cold and snow of Alaska and recharge our batteries with sunshine, I heard forgotten tunes that I don’t even hear on the oldies stations. It’s probably cheaper to play “Wichita Lineman” than it is to pay royalties to ASCAP for the latest Lady Gaga offering. Las Vegas exists to make you drop as much money as possible and for investors to spend as little as possible.
I have a long history with Las Vegas. I don’t gamble, I don’t drink alcoholic beverages, and I don’t seek out opportunities to do in Vegas what will stay in Vegas. But from the time I was born until I left my parent’s home as a newlywed, I made almost yearly pilgrimages to the city of neon lights. My parents were both from Utah. We migrated to Southern California and took up residence in Palos Verdes, an L.A. suburb on a picturesque peninsula overlooking the ocean. Every year my family made the pilgrimage back to Utah to visit family. The shortest route from L.A. to Salt Lake City is through Las Vegas.
Our voyages across the desert spanned the history of interstate 15 which streamlined the stop and go two-lane Highway 191 that linked desert communities from Victorville to Mesquite. When we moved from Massachusetts to California my parents had just purchased a shiny new white and “Sunset Orchid” Mercury station wagon. It was as sleek and modern as Sputnik. I was particularly fascinated by the push-button transmission control. My dad built a trailer from a basic metal frame and plywood boards to tow some of our belongings. The trailer was spray painted silver.
Somewhere outside of Las Vegas a passing car threw off a fiery shower of sparks as a chunk of its tire rim spun off and destroyed one of our car tires leaving us stranded. It was late at night and the sky was filled with stars. Daddy hitched a ride into Mesquite and scrounged up a replacement tire. Once back at the car he realized that not one but two tires were damaged and had to return to Mesquite again. My younger sister and I curled up in the rear of the station wagon but I couldn’t sleep. By the time Dad returned it was light and I was bored silly. We pressed on to our brand new home in Palos Verdes where the wood floors echoed our relief that the long cross country odyssey was over.
Preparations for our return visits to Utah always included my Mom making a fresh batch of fried chicken which she would pack in a wax paper lined shoe box for one meal on the road. She would also pack a bag of celery and carrot sticks for snacking on which were also useful for keeping the driver awake as we generally drove all night to escape the desert
heat. Our slick new car didn’t have air-conditioning. There were no bags of chips, no Cheetos, no junk food. There were no wet wipes. Mama always packed a wet wash cloth in a plastic bag. Sometimes there were Triscuits and Wheat Thins. There was always a container of water and sometimes an old fashioned burlap bag of water hanging somewhere on the outside of the car to keep cool. There were no McDonald’s only greasy spoons along the way. Occasionally, we would stop at a diner for breakfast which was a special treat. My favorite diner breakfast was fried eggs and bacon cut up into a bed of hash brown potatoes. I remember the scent of petrol filling the gas tank and the hunt for a respectable restroom.
We’d leave Palos Verdes late in the evening and weave our way along an assortment of freeways under various stages of construction until we reached the long climb up El Cajon pass between the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountain: a sweeping rise in elevation from the valley to the high desert where Victorville was an important pit stop.
During the Korean War, my Dad was activated and stationed at George Air Force Base in Victorville where we lived from my birth until I was two years old. In those days the family was already making the trips home to Utah. My older sisters remember that on one trip across the desert they spotted a mushroom cloud in the distance: evidence of a nuclear bomb test. Years later we would stop in Victorville to visit old friends there. I remember many conversations about how close my Dad came to being shipped out to Korea but somehow, miraculously, things didn’t end up that way and my parents were spared that separation. Instead they went from Victorville to Sioux City, Iowa; then Granby, Massachusetts; and then Palos Verdes, California.
After gassing up in Victorville and maybe having a meal with friends, the biggest diversion on the long journey to Utah was Las Vegas. We’d slow down as we pulled into the south end of The Strip and gape at the impressive display of lights at the Hacienda, Aladdin, Dunes, Sands, Desert Inn, and Stardust. The Stardust with its blinking stars and planets display was my favorite. But that was just the appetizer. As exciting as these iconic casino hotels were the big feast for the eyes was Fremont Street downtown. On rare occasions we drove down Fremont Street to soak in the daylight at midnight but usually we would just slow down as we approached Fremont from Las Vegas Boulevard and peak down the corridor of dizzying neon and swirling light bulbs and wave at the beckoning, giant, neon Cowboy.
After Las Vegas we drove along desolate stretches of Highway 191 where there seemed to be little life and nothing of interest. As we turned north at Littlefield and headed toward the mountain pass through the Shivwits Indian Reservation, Dad would point off to the right at a puff of dust between distant barren mountains where Interstate 15 would eventually blast through the Virgin River Gorge on its journey toward becoming one of the most important travel and commerce corridors in the United States. The old pass through the mountains was narrow and winding with signs warning to watch for rocks on the road. For years I fell for Dad’s joke about keeping an eye out for Chief Rocks on Road who was wandering in the night trying to hitch a ride. At Santa Clara, if the hour of the day was right, we’d stop at a fruit stand and load up on peaches and apricots or whatever else was in season before pressing on to St. George, a resplendent green gem nestled among red rock formations.
As a six, seven, eight year-old I had hyper anticipation for our yearly trips to visit family. California was my home but I looked forward to visiting the farm fields and peaceful mountains of Utah and getting away from the frantic suburban crush of Los Angeles. I don’t remember ever stopping overnight in Las Vegas on our family trips. It was only a brief diversion in the beeline back to Utah and family. For several years we participated in the building of an extended family cabin in Lamb’s Canyon above Salt Lake City. For me it was the ultimate peaceful retreat from the stress of California.
Las Vegas isn’t exactly a serene retreat but this year the winter in Alaska has been particularly brutal and Vegas offered a pleasant escape. Thanks to Groupon, Ralph and I secured a peaceful studio condo off the strip with a lovely view of the city. We thought we might go golfing in Mesquite but rather than embarrass ourselves on the course with our very rusty golf swings, we struck out across the desert to visit Grand Canyon West on the Hualapai Indian Reservation. It’s a two hour drive past Hoover Dam along rural desert roads. This is the location of the Skywalk adventure which soars out over the rim of the Grand Canyon giving a jolt of vertigo and a spectacular view of the colorful mesas and river below. This attraction is owned and operated by the Hualapia Indians. Employees at the site commute up to two hours to work at this extraordinary venue. The viewpoints of Eagle Point (location of the Skywalk) and Guano Point are accessible only by buses which require a ticket purchase and can include a meal at either location. We had the roast chicken, mashed potatoes and coleslaw at Guano Point.
Back in Las Vegas the next day, we enjoyed meals on the sophisticated side at our hotel restaurant. I reluctantly tried a raw tuna sushi that turned out to be amazingly yummy: hot crispy sesame rice cake topped with cold raw tuna spread, a tiny slice of avocado, with a dab of hot mustard on a bed of sweet soy sauce. After dinner we ventured out into the noise and lights of the strip. We went to Phantom of The Opera at the Venetian. Wonderful! The next night we took a chance on a new show by an Australian group, “Human Nature.” High energy Motown tunes with action packed movements and smooth harmonies: a strangely appealing Australian white boy take on Motown. Next we saw David Copperfield perform his amazing magic at the MGM Grand. Wow! How did he do that?! Stunning!
The Alaska snow moved south and pummeled Seattle with an ice storm so our flight out of Las Vegas on Friday was cancelled and we couldn’t get a flight out until Sunday so we had to scramble to figure out what to do with ourselves for a couple more days. We wrangled an extra couple of days of car use and checked into the Tuscany on Flamingo a few blocks east of Las Vegas Blvd. The Tuscany has nicely landscaped grounds, is tastefully decorated, clean, and a great deal. The room was beautiful although the bathroom was a bit spartan after the luxury bath in the condo at Palms Place. But the price was right. We set out to make the best of being stuck in Vegas.
By now we had learned the ropes for scrounging up discounted tickets for events. I’ve always wanted to see Cirque du Soleil “O” at the Bellagio. We weren’t disappointed. Although, there were a few weird random aspects to the show the spectacular water set and the grand scale of this Cirque Du Soleil event was thoroughly entertaining.
We filled in the blanks with shopping at Town Square Centre and Premium Outlet Malls North and South. We checked out Whole Foods. To deprived Alaskans this specialty grocery giant is pretty overwhelming. We loved the prodigious salad bar. However, in the end, no cheaper than picking up lunch at a restaurant.
I harbor such great nostalgia for the simple pleasures of those family journeys that I pestered Ralph until he finally drove me downtown to see Fremont Street, now billed as The Fremont Street Experience. The street is closed to traffic for several blocks and a canopy has been erected over this outdoor mall-like setting. We were reluctant to be down there after dark and the weather wasn’t good for strolling, so we did the slow drive by glimpse of the old dazzling marquees.
Much is familiar but the scale has lost its grandeur. The once sparkling light extravaganza is a little seedy and lacks the glamour it once had to my little girl eyes. But I can still taste the fried chicken and feel the warm night breeze through the windows of the slick Mercury station wagon as it glided through Las Vegas and into the dark, quiet desert beyond.
See this: 1957 Mercury Station Wagon