31 March 2009


I’ve just returned from several days out west, based in Las Vegas. It has been 35 to 40 years since I last visited, and needless to say things have changed radically. A few of the old establishments are still around, although updated, and the amount of new construction is just mindboggling. One thing that hasn’t changed is casinos filled with smoke and smokers. In the past this seemed normal as smoking was pervasive, but now it is something of an oddity, and truly awful for a non-, or ex-smoker to endure. Things have changed on the slots as well; they now use tickets instead of coins and currency, which kind of takes away the jingling sound that used to greet the occasional winner. I am one of the few visitors to Las Vegas who spent nothing gambling, having learned a hard lesson about that many years ago, and finding nothing appealing about the present setup.

There is now a monorail paralleling the strip but it is poorly conceived, running along the back end of hotels. To get to it you have to walk through casinos, then up and down stairs or broken escalators, so that you might as well have hiked to your next destination. The stops are all casinos from the north end of the strip to the south, and in the course of the ride you must endure some thoroughly inane commentary along the way. Then wherever you are, you have to walk through a casino to get back to the strip.

The biggest change from my standpoint is the way shows are presented. In the old days it was like a nightclub where you could sit with a drink and watch the show. Not any more. The shows are ridiculously overpriced and presented in theaters. In one instance where I had the misfortune to see the Bette Midler show, it was held in a theater with over 4,000 seats. It was sheer torture to sit through, between her occasionally singing loudly but not well, while otherwise engaging in a foul rant and badmouthing people like Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin, which is kind of like giving the finger to more or less half the country. To add insult to injury they insisted on confiscating all cameras, while pointlessly ignoring cell phones, which can also take pictures, and were integrated into a kind of audience participation segment, with a sissy wave moving the lighted phones back and forth. In this and all other shows the loudspeakers blast at an intolerable level, and projection screens are seriously overused in what is supposed to be a live show.

Then there are the people. As far as I could tell I was the only one wearing a jacket, and the audience was dressed in a variety of ways, like the pedestrians on the strip and in the casinos, ranging from awful to horrible. Women were dressed in flip-flops and men also dressed as though they were at a Caribbean resort, when the temperature was actually quite chilly, often walking along the street with a drink in hand and a cigarette dangling from their lips. There is something totally incongruous when you have the pretense of an upscale, elegantly appointed hotel, like the Venetian or Bellagio, and a parade of slobs constantly passing through. And that is just the white trash. There was also a large number of minorities everywhere, which helps explain how this western state could have flipped Democratic. To paraphrase the queen, for the first time in my life I’m not proud of my country. If you don’t gamble, Las Vegas is no place for anyone with any intelligence or sophistication. I hate to say it but things were a lot better when the mob was in charge.

One night we decided to check out Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas, which is famous for its light displays and overhead projection screens. However, the moment we got there all the lights were turned off for some idiotic “earth hour,” so we had to wait around in the darkness surrounded by a milling crowd of lowlifes. People in that part of the country would do well to worry more about water supply than CO2. When we visited Hoover Dam the water level was down more than 40 feet, and this is the source much of the southwest depends on for water. That also includes southern California, agriculture in particular, where about half of our produce comes from nationally. While spending all this stimulus money on ephemeral projects, it would be worthwhile to find a way to get water from the north where the Red River is overflowing, to the south where it is needed.

After days of visiting shows, hotels, and nearby attractions we headed on a couple of long range trips to national parks in Utah, including Zion, and Bryce where we stayed overnight, and where it was actually snowing. Then we headed in the opposite direction in both temperature and distance to Death Valley in California. For that sort of thing Las Vegas is an ideal jumping off point for side trips. But personally I prefer natural monuments to man’s monumental excess.

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