Published: August 10th 2012September 26th 2011
Las Vegas, baby!
The Las Vegas strip, seen from the highway near Red Rock Canyon
I left Tecopa this morning heading east.
Thanks to its location, the fastest route goes back to Parhump.
The road out follows the base of the mountain ridge above town.
It passes a few more abandoned housing developments like the one I saw yesterday.
Afterwards, it enters more empty desert, following ravines through mountains covered in scrub and exposed rocks.
After an hour, the road crests a rise, revealing a truly surreal sight.
A long line of absolutely huge buildings appears in the distance.
Most of them are covered in mirrored glass.
A tall concrete tower appears on the northern end.
It all looks like a mirage, and in many ways is one.
Those buildings mark a strange alternate universe; one where luck is a religion, money a form of worship, and hedonism the ultimate goal.
I’ve been saving every cent possible in my trip budget for the last two weeks, and this is where I get to spend them.
Yep, I’m heading for the source of that nighttime glow the last two days, Las Vegas
Las Vegas, and Surviving It
Las Vegas, in
Red Rock Canyon
View of the canyon (actually, several) from the highway at the south end
its own weird way, is the ultimate distillation of the American dream.
Here people can escape who they really are, at least for a while, and pretend to be who they wish.
People have made fortunes in this city, although many more lose them.
Almost anything can be had for the correct price.
Las Vegas truly is a mirage, an illusion of glittery excitement, luxury and glamor accessible to anyone with change in their pockets.
That illusion has a deadly dark side.
Nothing here is exactly what it seems.
The town overflows with hustlers and tricksters of all sorts.
The naïve and unprepared will be thoroughly taken for all they have, so fast they barely know what’s happening.
Like nowhere on this trip outside Detroit [see These Are the Times of Our Lives
], getting full value out of Las Vegas requires deep, through research.
I used two sources for most of mine.
Many visitors treat Las Vegas as a huge theme park, although it’s not one really.
It’s only appropriate, then, that Bob Sehlinger, author of the most obsessive theme park tour guides in existence [see Let’s Play Tourist in Central Florida
The canyon's namesake, along the scenic drive
wrote a guide to Las Vegas
This book covers everything any visitor could ever want, with long lists of reviews and ratings on things people may not even think about (one list ranks hotels by the ease of access to their parking!).
This book is worth buying for the gambling section alone, which describes in deep detail how regulars manage to not lose their shirts.
My other resource was the website Cheapo Guide to Las Vegas
Its aimed at low rollers who want to experience Las Vegas like a high roller, with through information on saving money at all sorts of hotels and casinos.
It’s a great complement to Bob’s book.
For anyone who doesn't want a book, the gambling section of vegasclick.com [which I'm not linking] is well worth reading.
I personally dislike the site because it promotes online gambling, but it's descriptions of the games and their strategies are detailed and accurate.
Red Rock Canyon
Heading down from the rise, the road passes a ridge of peaks on the left.
They stick out from the surrounding desert, covered in red and white bands of rocks.
Calico Tanks Trail
entering a dry wash on the Calico Tanks Trail
A road branches off into the desert in front.
The mountains form the Red Rock Canyon Recreation Area
, one of Nevada’s scenic highlights.
Bob’s book dedicates a section to the area.
Despite being less than a half hour from the Vegas casinos, most visitors never make it out here.
The road winds through gullies at the base of the peaks.
It is filled with hills and tight curves.
The only vegetation is scrub, so the views stretch a long way.
The drive gives ever-changing looks at rocky majesty.
Many of the rocks really are red, from iron oxide.
The layers alternate with normal yellow sandstone.
Be sure to fill a water bottle at the visitors’ center, because the rest of the park has none at all and it’s quite hot.
The only way to get close to the mountains is by hiking a trail.
I chose Calico Tanks Trail
, which starts at an obvious wash between rounded foothills composed of pure sandstone.
The entrance sign warns about rattlesnakes and flash floods.
The wash has bushes, yuccas, prickly pear cactus,
Red rock climb
Scrambling through red rocks on the Calico Tanks Trail.
and a few juniper trees.
The rocky slopes above it are bare.
The first part of the trail passes an old stone quarry.
A few uncut blocks sit near obvious holes in the sandstone.
People quarried stone here in the early 1900s to build the first set of buildings in Las Vegas.
People soon found cheaper sources of building material, and the quarry was abandoned.
Further along, the trail runs close to what looks like a pile of ash covered rocks.
The rocks are a sacred ceremonial site for local Native Americans.
It’s a good thing the site has a warning sign, because otherwise I never would have realized what goes on here.
For obvious reasons, visitors should keep their distance.
Finally, the wash reaches the foothills.
It narrows into a rocky ravine.
The floor becomes sand.
The ravine proceeds to twist through rounded sandstone knobs, slowly climbing.
In places, it contains rock slabs that must be scrambled over.
The knobs contain bands of red sandstone alternating with yellow.
The overall look is similar to
The Las Vegas strip, including the Venetian
Mosaic Canyon back in Death Valley [see It Can Never Happen Here…And Already Has
As the trail climbs, it reveals a view of the surrounding mountains.
It looks similar to that available from the road, but closer.
Everything else in the view is sandstone, except for the occasional juniper tree.
The scenery has become an endless parade of colorful rocks.
The trail continues for a few miles, but I didn’t see it all.
I ultimately turned around when I realized I had drunk half my water.
In the desert, a lack of water means death, so it’s better to turn around early from a hike then run out.
Heading east from Red Rocks, I encountered the surreal world of Las Vegas.
The first part is unnervingly normal, as tract housing and strip malls slowly surround the highway.
A few casinos appear.
This leads into a stretch along railroad tracks that, to put it politely, is rather seedy.
All at once, the road then crosses into the famous Strip along Las Vegas Boulevard.
Huge glittery buildings stretch to the limit of vision.
Part of the Venetian's enormous valet parking area
of traffic is almost overwhelming.
The Strip is a good metaphor for the entire city, a glittery façade for visitors surrounded by a much less attractive reality.
I’m here at last.
Las Vegas Hotel Booking Insanity
For most visitors, their first big gamble happens long before setting foot in a casino.
Las Vegas contains one of the largest concentrations of hotel rooms in the world, over 130,000 and counting.
Demand varies so wildly that during busy periods the worst flea pit can command more money than a luxury room at a major casino during slow periods.
The price for a room varies literally night to night.
Bob’s book has a listing of the factors that create high demand, and the best ways to avoid them.
I’m locked into my dates by the rest of the schedule, so I had to take my chances.
Soon afterward, visitors encounter their first Vegas con, the “resort fee”.
Nearly all casino hotels add these fees to their room rates.
The reason it’s a con is that they don’t disclose them except in fine print, so nearly
Venetian entrance lobby
The entryway is far from the only large luxurious place in this resort
everyone is surprised when the bill arrives.
The fee supposedly pays for access to special services that make a casino hotel much better than an average roadside motel.
In reality, they are a way to game hotel booking websites by making the places seem lower priced than they really are.
Thankfully, Cheapo lists them all
on the website, so I added the fees to the room rates while doing my research.
I really wish the hotel booking websites would do the same.
In the end, I drew an ace high flush and miraculously hit a slow period.
I could consider a rather wide range of rooms without breaking the budget, including some fairly luxurious resorts.
Genuine luxury hotels are cheaper here than anywhere else in the world during these periods, so I took the plunge.
I ultimately picked the Venetian
for a number of reasons.
The hotel is aimed at business convention travelers.
Many of them have large expense accounts and expect to get luxury for their money.
The Venetian caters to them with all suite rooms and a large
Most hotel rooms aren't worth noting. The rooms at the Venetian are an exception
array of amenities.
The flip side is that when no conventions are in town, the hotel sells those same suites to vacationers at huge discounts, which I got.
The hotel also has an amazing location right in the middle of the strip near all major casinos.
As the name should imply, the hotel attempts to replicate the glories of the city of canals.
The outside façade features copies of major buildings, St. Mark’s Campanile
, and the Rialto Bridge
The driveway features an absolutely huge entryway covered in copies of old master paintings.
Only valet parking is available, and it’s free.
Once through the doors, visitors end up in a high ceilinged lobby with a huge globe.
Copies of Venetian mosaics cover the floor.
The hotel has ten check in stations, and I still had a wait.
The room key comes in a folder with a map, otherwise people can’t find their way around.
The lobby leads into a long hallway covered in yet more copies of old masters, which leads to the casino.
The room elevators are on the far side.
No Las Vegas visit is complete without an Elvis siting; here are several!
Every room in this hotel is a suite
, including mine.
It had the standard layout of a sunken living room and separate sleeping area.
The bathroom is gorgeous, with marble on every surface.
It has separate tub and shower, along with some of the fluffiest towels I’ve ever seen.
Like many people who book at deep discount, I got a room with a lousy view, consisting entirely of the casino tower next door.
This room also has the most obnoxious minibar in existence; merely touching something triggers a room charge via an electronic sensor!
I had dinner at the hotel.
It has an Italian themed food court.
The food is quite good, but also quite expensive.
The prices are 50% higher than those at a regular mall.
Next door was a shop selling really good Italian chocolate.
Surprisingly, these prices were close to what I’ve paid elsewhere.
Cirque du Soleil
Las Vegas has the reputation as one of the premiere cities for live entertainment
in the United States.
The city has a staggering variety, from regular concerts by big names
The front of the Venetian, complete with real gondolas
to huge theatrical productions to major comedians to lounge shows by people nobody has ever heard of.
The current kings of Las Vegas have to be Cirque du Soleil
, a Montreal based group that blends circus acts with high theater.
When they first arrived in 1993, people wondered whether it would work; now they have shows
up and down the strip.
I saw their first, Mystere
I chose this show because it’s the only one without a theme, which I believe clutters the experience.
I got the ticket through the Las Vegas Convention Bureau
, which sells last minute tickets at steep discounts.
Their website has real time availability data, plus helpful show reviews.
Mystere was a series of different circus acts by performers in elaborate costumes, set to tribal and world music by a band.
A typical act consisted of an acrobat on a set of rings, who spun and manipulated a huge mirrored cube.
Another act had acrobats in bird costumes who spun and swung from poles high above the stage.
Yet another act featured a pair of strong men, one of
Las Vegas strip
The glorious Las Vegas strip, from the bridge between the Venetian and TI
Las Vegas’ staples.
These two did all sorts of lifts and contortions, and at one point balanced one man, upside down, on the other’s neck.
All circuses have clowns, and Mystere does not disappoint.
These clowns bring new theatricality to the experience.
One clown played an oversized baby with a huge ball (over six feet across) which he bounced around the stage.
Later on, he adopted a member of the audience as his father.
The lucky volunteer got a ride around the stage in a clown car, and later ended up in a cage.
Another clown played an absent-minded professor, constantly bumping into things.
At one point, he fell off the stage into a pit.
The finale is pretty special.
Groups of people walk around the stage playing drums.
Large mystical creatures come out, containing more actors playing drums.
A huge drum them drops from the ceiling with people on either side banging away.
This continues until the entire stage is filled with costumed performers, who then take their bows.
Mystere was great fun, and well worth the ticket cost.