The Eagles put it most eloquently in their song Hotel California when they said, "On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair". Those lyrics continued to run through my head long after the four-hour drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas was complete. Of course it would have been much easier to fly directly into Las Vegas from Boston; however, due to a day long snow storm on Monday which closed Boston Logan International Airport and many businesses, my Tuesday travel plans were being modified countless times as I attempted to begin my trip. It seemed that a direct flight from Boston was no longer possible, nor did it look possible to connect through Chicago, St. Louis or even Dallas. I did the next best thing that I could think of; take the trans-con to Los Angeles.
Every time that I arrive in Los Angeles I cannot help but smile. Walking off the jet bridge brings me a warm blast of fragrant, if not polluted, air. I love the names of streets and towns such as La Cienega, Hermosa Beach or Redondo Beach. They sound like such warm and welcoming places. And for the most part they really are. The people in southern California are equally as great as the weather. They usually seem upbeat and easygoing forcing you to love Los Angeles. You won't find me living in this massive sprawl with abominable traffic anytime soon though.
Due to deicing a couple of times in Boston, we arrived in LAX at nearly midnight west coast time, but that was all right. After all, I was in sunny, actually dark, southern California. I rented the smallest car that I could locate and headed on my way to Los Angeles. The directions were simple and the map provided by the rental car agency was sufficient to get me across the dark Mojave Desert. Fortunately traffic at this early morning hour wasn't too bad, but this was 1:00 AM on a weekday. I would hate to see it during a Friday evening exodus to Las Vegas.
After a brief snooze at a highway rest stop I finally saw Las Vegas loom into the early morning sun. It did appear to be nearly as massive as I anticipated and the monstrosity hotels seemed dwarfed by the expansive surrounding desert. I think the drive across the desert would have been gorgeous if it had not been dark. I did manage to see the last hour or so of my drive during the sunrise and it was great.
I had arranged to stay at my friend Lora's apartment for the duration of the stay. After a bit of negotiations with the apartment complex security watchman, I made my way to her digs for a shower and some clean clothes. The location of Lora's apartment is incredible as it is one block off the Strip and right behind Bally's Hotel and casino.
By 3:00 PM Las Vegas time (already I am loosing track of time with the long flight, drive and lack of sleep and I am not even in a casino yet) a couple of my friends, Derek and Gwen, have arrived. We decided to rent a car for the first couple days of our trip. One of the rental agency representatives got our attention and we talked. I am sure that she didn't buy my line about being a pilot while looking for a discount, but after some flirting on her part we got a convertible at an incredible price. As a matter of fact, I don't think that she believed I was over 25 years old.
Warmth, sun and a brand new convertible with 2 miles on it made us all ecstatic. We headed out to Red Rock Canyon. It is a short 30-minute or so drive to this stop and well worth it. The last five miles of the drive provided us with beautiful views of mountains displaying many colored layers on their barren sides. Cactus and a few Joshua trees adorned the area as well. The scenery was fantastic. As with most state parks, there is the typical visitor's center with some interesting exhibits, but I would much rather see the sights in person. We clamored back into the car and departed on the 13-mile circular drive through the park. There are many incredible points to stop at along the way and hiking paths leading off from these stops beckoned me. I would love to go back to spend a day or more hiking through the area. Definitely bring a camera and even a tripod on this adventure.
After the sun had set (sunset is a perfect time to visit the park when the red rock formations are lit by the crimson sun) we put the top up on the car and drove back to the well-lit Strip. Lora met us for dinner and drinks in one of the countless casino and restaurants. Derek and I were drawn to the tables afterward. We both, however, managed to loose all the money we played that evening. Lora convinced us not to loose too much at once and go on a ride instead. While walking to the ride, we were having such a great time catching up with conversation that I neglected to notice exactly what I was getting involved in.
We paid the high admission price and headed up to the top of the Stratosphere in some high-speed elevator. Once on top and outside the view of downtown Las Vegas was spectacular. I wished that I had not left my camera in the car. As we were admiring the view we couldn't help but notice the ride we were about to get on. I love roller coasters and amusement parks. I have spent several years flying and sometimes even inverted; however, my stomach sank just watching what was soon to be my fate. On top of the 1,149 foot tall Stratosphere building is a 200 foot spire around which is a collection of seats that rocket straight up 160 feet in 2.5 seconds and freefall back down.
This was the Bigshot. I was nervous, but figured that I would go along for the ride. I sat in the seat and secured the harness and seat belt around me. Tightly, mind you. The attendants cleared the area and without warning we shot straight into the night sky. I was sure that we were going off the top of the spire. Since the building supporting this contraption is so narrow I could not see anything below me except for the lights of the Strip against the darkness of the desert. My heart was racing and then we became weightless as the seats began to fall back to earth. I still was not convinced that we had not rocketed off the top of the spike. The ride was over quickly, but my legs were trembling. Apparently, I made quite the noise during the entire ride. This is the most terrifying experience I have ever had in my life. I will not go on this ride again. Lora and Gwen did go a second time, though, and gave the cameras a perfect topless shot of them in the ascent. We then rode the much tamer High Roller roller coaster, which runs outside around the circumference of the Stratosphere at the top. After this experience, it was time for bed. After a few hours my heart resumed its normal pace and we all crashed at Lora's.
The Las Vegas strip has huge variety of visitors. During the daytime and afternoon hours you see the older tourists with bad outfits strolling up and down the boulevard. However, as the sun sets the party oriented group emerges. After dinner the apparent tourists are replaced with a young and party seeking crowd. The slot machines become vacant as the blackjack and craps tables fill. The minimum bet allowed at the tables increases and booze flows.
This morning we visited the art gallery at the Bellagio that had an Andy Warhol exhibit. The display was accompanied by an audio tour dictated by Liza Minelli. Only in Las Vegas could one find this combination. The display was a great collection and most enjoyable. After this exhibit we visited the indoor gardens also at the Bellagio. Vegas is unbelievable.
We spent most of the day wandering up and down the strip stopping in a variety of casinos. Each casino has a theme associated with it. For example there is Paris with a huge Eiffel Tower, or there is the Luxor that is shaped like a pyramid and has inclinators instead of elevators. It is worth the time fooling the security guard (women work best) that you are guest of the hotel and take a ride in one of the inclinators. Once on one of the upper floors it is fun to look over the edge into the open interior of the hotel. There really is too much to see and photograph from erupting volcanoes, which I didn't visit but I hear that they are better in Hawaii anyway, to sinking pirate ships at Treasure Island. My most favorite attraction is the fountain in front of the Bellagio. By the end of the trip I had spent a least a couple of hours here at night photographing the fountain.
The fountains are so spectacular that before dinner and after a dip in one of the 5 hot tubs in Lora's complex we sat on the outside deck of Mon Ami Gabi, a restaurant at Paris, enjoyed a drink and watched the water cannons of the fountain dance to the classical music. Incredible!
This evening we experienced an all-you-can-eat buffet at the Aladdin. The spread of food was enormous and the quality not all that bad; although, I wasn't terribly impressed with the overall experience. I was looking forward to the sushi bar but its selection was meager and the taste lackluster. Of course, there was so much more than seafood. Nearly every ethnicity imaginable was represented at this buffet that encompassed the area of probably two hotel conference rooms. Derek mentioned that Americans are probably the ones who created the all-you-can-eat concept and perhaps that mentality contributes to our health problems. I am glad to be able to say that I experienced Vegas buffet, but it will be my last. There are so many other restaurant choices on the Strip of seemingly great quality that I see no real need for the buffets. Again this evening I made a valiant attempt to take the house, but after the blackjack dealer dealt herself 4 blackjacks in a row I had to leave.
I figured that I would slide a dollar into one of the slot machines and I got lucky. $80 is what poured out when I cashed out after one pull of the handle. Ah, I was begining to recoup some of my losses.
I would really like to get a considerable amount of sleep at night but seem to be unable to. We come in late at night and for some crazy reason are up by 8:00 AM. I am sure that the fatigue will catch up eventually.
After our saturation of the porn pushing men on the street, lights, and ringing of slot machines we decided to take the convertible out for a spin and see Hoover Dam. About an hour's drive East of Las Vegas this is also well worth the time and offers a great relief from the intensity of Vegas.
I had heard stories that visitors could no long walk on the dam or take a tour since the September 11 attacks. As of February 2003, that was not the case. We walked across the entire dam and stopped at both intake towers. Half of the dam is in Arizona, the other half in Nevada. The visitor's center is typical and not worth much, but I do think it worthwhile to endure the security and take the brief tour and visit the overlook. I felt like I was at an airport with the magnetometer and x-ray machines to screen all people and bags going on the tour or to the overlook. All the while you are permitted to drive on top of the dam or simply walk across with little to no security scrutiny. The days of the fabled "hard hat tour" are gone, and all that remains is a short film which is terrible and offers little information about the dam itself. It is more of a commercial for the dam. Also still active is a guided tour to the generator room. It is fantastic to see the 6 turbines and generators spinning away. You cannot get very close and they allow about a 3-minute viewing period, but it is worth it. After the guided portion you are set loose on the outdoor overlook and a small informational center. Again, neither of these is really spectacular; however, worth the time and effort.
Driving back to Las Vegas with the top down was still a novel idea. I think that the locals thought we were crazy to be driving around in 65 degree weather with the top down as it was fairly cold to them; however, we were loving every minute of the relative warmth.
This evening we were invited to the Diamond Club at the Rio Hotel and Casino. This is an older casino and not nearly as touristy as the others. A friend of Karen's Aunt invited us up for snacks, drinks, and coversation. This is one of those private bars that you must be an exclusive member to enter. Rumor has it that you must have gambled one million dollars to become a memeber. The drinks and food were awesome. After eating and drinking our now enormous and varied group moved back to the casino floor and attempted to win 33 million dollars in one of the progressive slot machines. I still work at American Eagle.
Crepes for breakfast while sitting at a sidewalk café in Paris began the morning. At least the crepes were real, the rest just a look-alike. I spent most of the rest of the day lying on Lora's bed as my stomach disagreed with some of last night's hot dogs. Dinner PF Chang's topped off the evening and entire week for that matter as our now huge group dined together.
The flights into an out of Vegas are incredibly packed. I was sure to end up in the jumpseat, if even that on any flight out of here. Instead of fighting with the crowds I opted to ride with a couple of friends back to Los Angeles through the desert; albeit this time during the daylight and I caught the redeye from LAX back to Boston.
As soon as I returned to Boston, it seemed that I could not avoid Las Vegas references. Since my internal clock was completely screwed up by this point I laid in a hotel room bed on a trip for work wide-awake at 3:00 AM. On television I caught the movie Leaving Las Vegas. The next morning I awoke to Ocean's Eleven.
I had a great time in Las Vegas. It was unlike any other trip that I have taken. I suspect that Las Vegas is unlinke any other city in the world. This is truly Sin City. I saw a few people with children there but none of the industry is welcoming to kids. The photography opportunities abound with the great variety of people and lights on the strip. I especially enjoy the nighttime photography options. We toured at a break-neck pace. I would like to return to catch a show, perhaps "O". Unquestionably I would purchase a ticket and forget about using any travel benefits to get there.