Betting on Vegas

Twenty years ago I went to Las Vegas for the first time. After one night and a day and a half in which I crammed in a jolting rollercoaster ride, some dreary slots action, a few free casino drinks, one mediocre buffet and an excursion to the breathtaking Hoover Dam, I was deliriously bored. The plan was to stay two nights, but I cut out early. Whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. For the most part, it can keep it.

So now, as I mull a few days in Vegas, apprehensions flare. I’m not entirely sure what the desert playground might offer me, even as I am older, wiser, my perspective expanded, evolved, more eclectic. Yet my curiosity about this capital of gilded debauchery has blossomed. The city’s dining has radically improved, flights are affordable and good hotels are crazily economical. My wanderlust, post-Japan, is in full swing. I need a quick fix. Something cheap, fast and out of control.

strip_b86ddbea-3add-4995-b449-ac85d700b027.jpgVegas is one of the last places friends and family would expect me to visit, like a concrete Cabo, a bacchanalian bender full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  

Yet it’s culture of a kind, unfiltered Americana, grubby and glamorous, crass and class, streaked with electric rainbows, trading in hedonism, peppered with amusement-park thrill rides, gaudy stage shows and two-bit wedding chapels. It’s loud, bright, obnoxious. I see in it something of a sociological study. I see writing fodder. Notes will be taken.

I’m not a gambling man (a grumbling man, yes). The only card game I know is blackjack, but I’m too reserved to sidle up to a table and play with strangers in the open. (Even though I did so once at Lake Tahoe and hit 21 three times in a row, winning a staggering $30. I was young.) 

Vegas platitudes pile up with ease. I forever associate it with frat bros and bachelor parties, lushes, heedless gamblers, the easily amused. It lacks soul, teeming with tourists doing a hollow shuffle, an empty hustle. I love lights, but there’s no beating heart beneath the blinking wattage. The blinding bloat lacks depth; it’s all sheen.

Still, I plan. And as I dig, the more intrigued I get. I’m going to go all in, play by Vegas rules, go with the flow, insert your own cliché here. I’m making reservations for Jaleo, Jose Andrés’ acclaimed Spanish restaurant, as well as Andrés’ Vegasy carnivore joint The Bazaar. I will hit a rollercoaster or two (of course; I’m loopy for a good, crap-your-pants coaster), see a brassy show (sans magicians), play a few money-sucking slots and maybe check out The Neon Museum.

Though I’m planning a short trip — I think I can get my fix in two days — I worry I won’t be able to fill the time with the kind of cultural nourishment I crave in my travels. I have to adjust my expectations, lower the bar and hope I’ll be pleasantly surprised. Usually I know mostly what I’m getting into in my journeys. This one’s a gamble. 

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8 thoughts on “Betting on Vegas

  1. Your impressions of Vegas mirror mine. I went once only, for a convention. I arrived a day early so I could see the sights because the convention left no wiggle room. And … a day was enough. I liked the roller coaster and there was some awe to be had watching it rain indoors at one of the hotel lobbies. But I’m not a gambler so the city’s appeal is limited. I enjoyed a Cirque du Soleil show, but that had little to do with Vegas itself. You were so wise to visit Hoover Dam! I did that with my family as a kid and would love to go again. Eager to hear your return-trip impressions.

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    1. Hey Anne!! We’re in the same leaky boat. I keep second guessing this short trip, but I’ve done real research this time, seeking out a cheap(-ish) comedy show at the Comedy Cellar, three nice dinners, including an apparent “bucket list” Thai place called Lotus of Siam, and a few other shops and sights that sound from out of sight to just all right. I’ll do a report post-whatever-I’m-getting-into! I hope you are fabulous, Anne.

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  2. I hate Vegas so, so much. I hate how they re-create all these miniature versions of international cities so Americans can go there and feel like they’ve travelled to these places without actually having to do so and risk expanding their minds. I tend to see it as a symbol of everything that’s wrong with America. That said, the Atomic Testing Museum is worth a visit if you haven’t been.

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  3. Ugh, you’re confirming my worst fears, Jessica. It’s too late, I’m locked into this (mercifully short) trip. Still, if I adjust my perspective, fully aware of what I’m sinking into, I might find bright spots (he said quixotically). Anyway, your points are well taken — I’ve always thought the place was a chintzy embarrassment — and I do plan on the Atomic Testing Museum, especially if recommended by the marvelous museum maven.

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  4. I’ll be the lone voice… I love Las Vegas. I’ll admit it’s been many years since my last visit. I hear the nickel slot machines are gone and dining has definitely gone upscale since I last visited (20 years ago for my wedding-yes, we did get married in a cheesy wedding chapel, but not by Elvis -we are saving that for our vow renewals one day). My advice is to take Vegas on its own terms. Don’t try to make into something it’s definitely not. Yes to all the tacky free shows, eat at the cheapest buffet you can find, try to find the cheap slot machines and see if you can score a free drink. Do they still have the old style shows with the topless ladies in sequins and feathers? A friend and I did that one year and had a great time. Definitely the Neon Museum. Valley of Fire is a close drive if you need to escape for some nature and culture (Indian pictographs). Enjoy Vegas at its cheap, tacky best and I think you’ll have a fun time.

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    1. Hallelujah! Some good news about Sin City. Great advice: “Take Vegas on its own terms.” That’s exactly my plan. I appreciate the encouragement and earthbound tips and suggestions, Philly. Hope to have some fun reports when I’m back.

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