Bright Lights In The Desert

June 15, 2014

Sitting at the blackjack table at 6am can be magic. There is a sense of insomnia and insanity that mixes with the thrill of real, live gambling and money being made or lost.  You may also find that you have walked in to another dimension, one where reality and fantasy are the same, where drunken middle aged men can predict the future.

 

“You’re gonna get a blackjack” he said over and over to the rest of us. At first we thought he was just lucky but as round after round unfolded just as he foretold, things became mystical. No matter how much sleep I needed, I couldn’t leave the table. This was like witnessing a unicorn. There is a moment, it seems, when a given table becomes one. When everyone sitting there gets to know each other a little and trust’s each others instincts. A sort of rag-tag band of misfit gamblers bands together and for a little while there is a harmony to the chaos. Sure, the house always ends up winning, but for just a few brief moments, with a drunken wizard at your side, anything seems possible. Even this:

 

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Viva Las Vegas indeed. My first trip out here was about what I expected: lots of heat, little sleep and more than a few adventures. I had lined up a few interviews for the podcasts but after making initial contact with my guests, both cancelled on me, citing PR concerns and such. Too bad for them, as I was very interested in the production lifestyle of this town. FYI, I will most likely NOT be staying at the Monte Carlo again now thanks to this. Call Las Vegas many things, but if New York is the city that never sleeps, Vegas is the show that never ends.

 

There is so much to see or do and yet a great many people end up spending far too much time consumed with the gambling. There were many people who I witnessed sitting at a slot machine for HOURS, just putting in coins, pulling the lever, rinse and repeat. I vowed that though I would gamble some, I needed to see more than just the casino floor.

 

Walking down the “Strip”, aka Las Vegas Blvd at any time of night or day is an overwhelming experience. Much the same as Times Square in New York or a few other places around the world, Vegas gives the vibe of naked (literally) consumerism. Every Casino and hotel has its own look and appeal, some going for the classy, others pure kitsch. There are more Casinos than there are days in a month to visit, the biggest ones dominating the eye with their architecture and grandiose. Among the most famous of course is the Bellagio, with its fountains that make a mockery of water conservation.

 

 

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Vegas touts itself as a family friendly place and it was very surprising to see the number of small children and families wandering around. For one thing, the heat can be overwhelming. In the sun, it was easily over 110 degrees and while YES, there is low humidity, 110 is hot anywhere. As they say, you shouldn’t take your kids to Disney in the dead of summer because you end up spending more time in the AC and the pool instead of the parks. It is much the same out here. More than a few little kids were wilting in strollers before the day was done.

 

There certainly is plenty for families to see and do in Vegas of course. The sheer amount of entertainment means there is something for everyone. From water parks to museums to live music, every single person can be entertained. The performers are made up of the aspiring and the professional who all bring something to the table. I was not expected much of an actual music scene here, but was very impressed by what they had to offer, from rock to funk to jazz and of course, standards to do Sinatra proud. The quality of most productions is of a very high quality but this being Vegas, there was a lot of the fake behind the authentic. Most bands played to tracks and a lot of bright lights were used to blind some of the less impressive performers. Like any good production, sometimes the packaging is what matters and Vegas certainly knows how to do that.

 

Acts generally started around 8pm or later, which definitely gives Vegas a nighttime vibe. The day is spent lounging, the night is where the real work gets done. With almost all entertainment and production geared toward the Casinos, every place has its own in house technical staff to handle all AV duties from rigging to setting up lights and sound. Only the very biggest headliners bring their own crew in and they tend to install for months at a time. Residencies in Vegas have become quite popular and are guaranteed work for all involved.

 

As for the other part of it’s reputation…it’s well deserved too. There is something perversely funny about families walking down the street, all happy and looking for something to do together only to have a stranger hand them one of these:

 

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If you are looking for escorts or strip clubs, then Vegas is also your place. On every corner people who were literally begging you to go. They’d give you a free limo ride, free drinks, even free dances if only you’d PLEASE, PLEASE go. None of these places are on the same road as the casinos, but they exist on their own Strip, just a few short blocks away. I asked one local a rough estimate of the number of strip clubs and escort services they had and was told it rivals or may even be greater than the number of casinos.

 

The overwhelming sense of paradise is everywhere here. Pools and spas, pyramids, replica skyscrapers, people lounging in tanktops and bikinis just soaking in the sun. You are meant to lose yourself.  I needed to escape and see something utterly real. So, my roommate and I decided to hit the road and find something that was the very opposite, something that was just REAL.

I’d say we did.

canyon

 

The majesty of the Grand Canyon cannot be overstated. Looking just like something out of a painting with endless colors that reflect the sun and moonlight, it is a special effect like no other.  A million green screen and graphic artists could try to render something to match but it would not possibly compare in any way shape or form. Here is a place to be witnessed, to drink in all of the sights, sounds and smells. To look down and outward, outside of yourself.

What struck me at once was how quiet it was out there. We drove a bit off of the beaten path to stay away from tourists snapping photos and found ourselves just sitting on the edge, staring. All we heard was the faint call of some birds, the whisper of the wind and just the earth itself, which seemed to sigh. As the sun set, the canyon goes through it’s own transformation, with the light dancing and reflecting back new hues each minute. For a good hour, this light show continued and all you needed to do was watch as the world seemed to be full of infinite beauty.

Even as the moon became more present, the vast openness of the space gave us possibly the best view of stars I’ve ever seen. With so little light pollution, the entire sky was twinkling bright. Truly, as it must have been hundreds, even thousands of years ago, standing there was being transported outside of the hustle and bustle of modern life. What I was left with was the profound sense of being at once one and apart from this earth. At one, because I felt connected but apart due to its endlessness. In a way, it must be how it feels to float in space and look in to the farthest reaches of the galaxy or to see the planet from above. You realize how small you can be and yet, I never felt more at peace.

After seeing the canyon, nothing else on the trip could compare but I still enjoyed the many charms of Vegas. The endless buffets are definitely a challenge only for the biggest of stomachs though I did eat my share.  It’s certainly a place to go crazy for a little while, but I couldn’t imagine living here full time. In fact, many of the actual employees of the Casinos and the entertainment provided within don’t live in the area but on the outskirts. A little escape to normalcy is needed for even just a little while.

As my plane took me away from the area late at night, one final image burned in to my memory. Vegas literally is in the middle of nowhere in the desert. As you drift further away, all you see is darkness and one light filled oasis shining like a beacon cuts through it. Vegas stands alone, against the harshness of life and its own climate.

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 You can never really claim ownership of this land, but for a while, you may be able to beat the house, so long as you eventually know it’s time to come home.

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