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What I Really Think of Las Vegas

(Reprint from News: June 15, 2001 - Part 2)

June 15, 2001


The next morning, I said goodbye to Troy, Carlye, and the weird golf courses in San Diego, then drove east on Interstate 15 heading to Las Vegas.  Yeah, there are more interesting roads to take across the Mojave Desert, such as the old, two-lane U.S. Route 66 used by the fictional Joad family in John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" and used by the thousands of non-fictional Okies and Arkies immigrating to California during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, but I was in a hurry to get to Utah.  It's about a 3-hour drive across the Mojave Desert from southern California to Las Vegas and, this being a Friday, Interstate 15 was packed with Angelenos heading to "Lost Wages" for a weekend of fun... and, mostly, losing.  


The "World's Tallest Thermometer" read 98 degrees as I drove into the dusty town of Baker, half-way to Vegas and in the middle of the Mojave Desert, so I stopped and got a 44-ounce mug of Diet Pepsi with LOTS of ice, which I nursed the rest of the way across the desert with the windows rolled down.  This is the only way to drive across the desert if your car doesn't have air-conditioning, and it was actually quite pleasant, especially with my truck's 11 speakers blasting out Sheryl Crow's "Leaving Las Vegas" (although I hadn't even arrived yet).  The Mojave Desert gets pretty hot in the summer... and darn cold in the winter.  In fact, I once spent a very cold January night many years ago huddled in my down sleeping bag while parked in a Rest Area on I-15 near Baker.



Above left:  An Inspection Station in southern California, manned by unfriendly-looking Border Patrol agents looking for illegal aliens.  I didn't mention to them that I once swam across the Rio Grande from Mexico into Texas.

Above center:  The most expensive gas that I've seen so far was here in Baker.  Ouch!  By the way, that's the World's Tallest Thermometer at the Bun Boy restaurant in the background.

Above right:  Joshua Trees were named by the early pioneers because their branches reminded them of the arms of Joshua reaching towards heaven.  Joshua, apparently, had many arms.



What I think are the two strangest states in the U.S., Nevada and Utah, are, interestingly enough, located right next to each other.  Utah is the heart of Mormonism, socially conservative, prim and very proper.  Nevada, its rowdy next-door neighbor, was for many years the only state in which gambling was legal.  Prostitution is also legal in some counties in Nevada, although it's regulated pretty stringently -- but, of course, I wouldn't know about that. 


In the late 1800s, Las Vegas, Nevada was a dust-blown railroad stop in the middle of nowhere with less than 50 residents and about as many saloons.  Hoover Dam, a Depression-era works project, was built on the Colorado River in the 1930s and, with this source of electricity and a growing population of Angelenos just a few hours away, casinos began sprouting up in Las Vegas during the 1940s... with the Mafia not far behind.  Today, Las Vegas is the fastest-growing city in America with a population approaching a million.  Wherever you go in Vegas, you can hear the constant pounding of hammers as new rows of stucco-sided houses sprawl endlessly off into the desert... with little thought towards planning or conservation.  


Speaking of gambling, after I graduated from college, I spent 5 solid months teaching myself to count cards in Blackjack and planned to hit Las Vegas to break the bank (hey, what was I supposed to do with a Geography degree?).  After teaching myself how to win, I drove to Reno to try out my strategy and rake in the winnings.  However, I soon learned a simple fact:  casinos don't like it when people win money.  Maybe I'll describe that whole story later, but it was a good lesson and I figured that I better get a real job instead of sitting at smoky blackjack tables for the rest of my life, so I joined Parsons Brinckerhoff.  


Here's Elvis Presley singing that classic, Viva Las Vegas.

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Though I've forgotten most of my card-counting strategy, I still play blackjack in the casinos occasionally just for fun and can usually stay even with the casino, which is better than most players do, I guess.  This time, though, I drove right by the blackjack tables, since I wanted to spend the night in Utah.


Las Vegas is kind of interesting, but it's also extremely bizarre.  Back in 1999, I lived here for about two months and learned just how gritty it really is.  Nowhere else in America is greed so rampant.  After leaving Las Vegas in 1999, I flew back to Portland and was walking through the Portland airport when a single and, in retrospect, rather humorous thought ran through my mind: "Portland is so... wholesome!"  Actually, compared to the cesspool called Las Vegas, anyplace is wholesome.  In my opinion, Las Vegas is the sleaziest and slimiest city in America, and it's literally the last place I'd ever want to live.  That old adage, "You couldn't PAY me to live there" is true.  You really couldn't.


Driving down The Strip, though, is usually good for a laugh because you're never sure what you'll see.  As I pulled back onto Interstate 15 after seeing The Strip, I popped the Sheryl Crow CD back in and played "Leaving Las Vegas" again as I headed out of town.  I was definitely glad to leave.



Above left:  I really love highway signs.  In fact, I used to have an official "U.S. Route 66" highway sign on my bedroom wall... back when I had a bedroom wall.  I still have the sign, though.

Above center:  Interstate 15 and the endless caravan of cars heading from Los Angeles to Las Vegas (right) on a Friday afternoon for a weekend of gambling.  A long caravan of losers will be heading in the opposite direction (left) on Sunday afternoon.

Above right:  Las Vegas is everything I'm not and is probably the last place I'd ever move to.  But it's always a kick to drive on the Strip.



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