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Tour of the Southwest
Phoenix, Tucson, Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, Las Vegas
October 2004

Phoenix 1 Phoenix 2 Tucson Grand Canyon Hoover Dam
Las Vegas 1 Las Vegas 2 Las Vegas 3 Las Vegas 4

I've had to tell this story so many times I think it worth writing down for others who are curious about the history of Las Vegas.

Bugsy Segal did not give birth to Las Vegas. There were bars and casinos operating there long before he set foot in the place. In fact, Las Vegas was inhabited long before white folks even landed on this continent. The Anasazi had already abandoned a place nearby in 1050. Next came the Paiute, who are there even today. The Mormons showed up in 1844, but they only lasted through 1857. In 1865 the Mormon fort was remodeled into a ranch by Octavius Decatur Gass and named Las Vegas Rancho. But what really started the spot as a living, breathing town was the railroad. The San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad needed a watering stop along the way so Las Vegas, the town, was born in the early 1900's. In the early 1900's gambling was legal, booze was legal, and brothels operated a block off Fremont Street in the famous Block 16 (and next door in Block 17 for non-whites.) Eventually gambling and booze were outlawed, but since Vegas was isolated from the rest of the country, a lot of vice thrived. In fact, there was a sheriff who would drive through the section of town well known for bootlegging and use the police car's loudspeaker to warn the locals that the feds were coming.

Eventually the feds came for other reasons - to build Boulder Dam. They asked Vegas to clean up it's act so that the laborers could live there. But Vegas basically declined, so the feds set up Boulder City to house the workers, who then came down the road to Vegas to party hardy. The population soared starting around 1930 with people fleeing the depression in hopes of finding consturction work at the dam.

Another boost, if not to the population then to Vegas' reputation as a city for sin, was the quickie divorce. While other areas required a 6 month residency and waiting period, you could get a divorce in Nevada in a mere 6 weeks starting in April 1931. "Dude ranches" popped up around Vegas. Just hang out on vacation for a few weeks and free yourself of that pesky spouse, no problemo. Shortly thereafter, gambling became legal (again) in Nevada, then prohibition ended nationwide and the Vegas you know and love became legal.

Blocks 16 and 17 were cleaned up around WWII to prevent soldiers stationed nearby from having too much fun, and ending up with venereal diseases that might interfere with their service to the country. These days, there are still legal brothels, but they're outside the city limits. (I haven't bothered to look into them since it's an open market in Amsterdam which results in far more selection and better prices.)

After WWII came Bugsy, The Flamingo, the rest of the mob, the Rat Pack and the "golden years" of Vegas, all long after Vegas was already a hotbed of sinful entertainment. Previously all the action in Vegas was downtown, but Bugsy started the rush for the strip. What was once 5th Street became what you know now as Las Vegas Boulevard. Downtown has tried to keep up ever since, thus the Fremont Street Experience.

With all that in mind, we cruised into the valley. The surrounding mountains are stark, sharp, barren. The valley once sported a stream but now Lake Mead feeds Vegas' ever-growing thirst. The construction is constant. You get the feeling that if you stared for a few minutes you might actually be able to see the city spread before your very eyes. We stayed on the highway to avoid the traffic on the strip, then slipped off and snuck up on our hotel from behind.

The Sahara is one of the oldest hotels on the strip. It's on the north end, closer to downtown so it's perfect for reaching both the strip and downtown. Some of the rooms have a nice view, but ours was obscured by the neighboring building and parking deck.

At night the view wasn't much better, though you got a hint of what lay just down the strip.

We contacted the various degenerates that were meeting us in town and headed downtown to meet them. Where the railroad station that birthed Las Vegas once stood is now a towering hotel and casino overlooking Fremont and Main streets. Above that, fireworks were going off for reasons unknown, but they were almost overpowered by the neon streets below.

Fremont has been covered with a big pavilion for five full blocks, providing shade during the day and lighting up as the world's largest television for shows at night.
Vegas Vic still winks at people, though the famous Pioneer Club is now a souvenir shop. But this picture gives you another look at the canopy overhead.
Something like every hour on the hour the casino lights all shut off. A few seconds later the canopy comes to life, a 5 block long TV overhead. There are several different vignettes but we caught the same ones over and over due to bad timing.
My favorite was one that told the history of Vegas in abstract imagery. It started off with magma boiling up the edges of the screen, cooled and sprouted a jungle with bugs and dinosaurs and such, which gave way to cave paintings that came to life, little stick figures chasing buffalo and such, then the screen was covered in giant steam engine wheels and mechanical parts, and so on until it went into sci-fi future stuff.

There was also a cheesy Area 51 alien invasion vignette. Silly, though it did a nice job of making it seem like UFO's were flying above Fremont.

Regardless of artistic expression, or lack thereof, the technical feat is astounding. I want my whole house interior done this way, floor to ceiling.

As if that weren't enough, every block there's a stage, often hosting live music from one mainstream or another, all cover bands and nothing unexpected.
No matter what type of music you like, there's probably someone butchering it in on Fremont Street. From classic crooners a la Sinatra, to noodley jazz a la Kenny G, to country pop a la Shania, to classic rock a la AC/DC, to heavy metal a la Metallica, someone will cover it. It might not be so bad if the environment weren't so overwhelming. Neon and flashing lights cover every surface, the racket from the open casino doors, the hordes of people of all ages - it's near-instant sensory overload.

On the up side, there's no open container law so you can grab a drink from one of the daiquiri stands along the street and try to adjust to the clamor. Or get free drinks while you gamble, then give up on losing money and take your drink elsewhere.

We headed into Four Queens to hook up with other degenerates. You're not supposed to take photos inside casinos, apparently, so I'll have to do my best to illustrate them with my crude yet occasionally effective English. (One problem I have with casinos is the rules aren't posted anywhere. But they don't want to seem unwelcoming, so your dealers and staff are usually happy to help you out.)

We wound our way through the ever-present maze of  slot machines in search of our friends. The slots offer  the worst odds for gamblers. In addition, they take very little work to maintain - low labor cost - so naturally they're up front and take up 90% of the floor space in a casino. The noise and lights they emit is pretty overwhelming. Degenerate DC couldn't walk past a bank of them without dropping money in. I watched him lose $20 in about 9 seconds to one of the machines. I sit in front of a machine all day and it's a guaranteed payout, so gambling on one seemed a waste of time. But I have to say the variety of themes the manufacturers have is impressive. There's the expected rows of fruits and BAR reels, but then there's computerized screens with Elvis signing to you when you hit three blue suede shoes in a row - makes sense, Elvis was The King of Las Vegas in my opinion. The Price Is Right and Wheel of Fortune slots also make sense - games based on game shows. But the Young Frankenstein slots baffled me. Not only is there no thematic connection to Vegas or gaming, but the reference seems out of date.
Meh, it's all just a marketing scam. The slot machines seemed, to me, to be the world's most boring and expensive video games. If you watch the players instead of the game you'll get an idea of how much "fun" these machines actually are. Crap, I move around and smile more at work in front of a computer. The slot zombies, as I took to calling them, are about as animated as Christopher Reeve. And yes, we had heard he had passed away while we were on vacation. To quote my mom, "I've never seen so many people looking so miserable while they're supposed to be having a good time."

We found our friends at a blackjack table doing fairly well, but we needed food. We didn't want to do a full buffet or sit-down meal so we wandered to the back of the casino and found fast food Tony Roma's pizza. It sucked, but it was filling and quick. We went back out on the floor and took up residence at the craps tables next to degenerate DC & BC, seasoned gamblers and somewhat knowledgeable in the game. They had been in and around Vegas for a week and were trying to recoup extensive losses. I matched their bets for a few rolls but couldn't see the excitement in the game - until the waitresses showed up bringing free drinks. They cruise around the table games, quietly chanting "cocktails? cocktails? cocktails?" They don't visit the slots as often, so there's another reason to stay away from the machinery and stick to the human-operated money-sucking activities. Drinks are free as long as you're gambling, but mixed drinks are a little on the weak side. Go for beer or straight liquor. Tip your waitresses as you would in any other establishment. Tip well and they'll come by more often.

So I won a few, lost a few. Other degenerates would swing by and ask "How are you doing?"
"$20 down, 5 drinks up - pretty good," I'd say.
I wasn't interested in trying to break the bank. The only bank that would get broken would be my own, so I stuck to the $5 tables. Eventually I tried my hand at blackjack and found it far more satisfying than craps. There's actually some small degree of skill involved, rather than blind luck, and I've always had a head for math. With only a few simple rules you can cut the odds down to pretty even. Over the course of the weekend I came out maybe $100, and countless drinks, up. I think if I knew a little more detail I might have done even better, but  I wouldn't have minded breaking even as long as the free booze kept flowing.

Others weren't as cautious. "Vegas, baby!" seems to be the mantra of the damned. You can spot an addict pretty quickly. They've got a certain gleam in their eyes, hands quiver, they sweat a bit. There's almost a worried energy about them. They talk about how they're "hot", i.e. on a streak, or how the next game/hand/toss of the dice will be the turning point. But I'm too cold and calculating to catch the bug. I watch the game, assess the odds, compare that to the entertainment value offered and come away asking "Why bother?"
But everybody has their own personal vice(s). Mine just don't involve money, except maybe in Amsterdam...

Another casino phenomenon of note - you can't get all Hunter S. Thompson gonzo these days. The surveillance cameras are everywhere. Pit bosses roam the floor and lurk around the table games, staring at you like mall security guards on high school senior skip day. They make you feel like you're cheating even when you don't know how to play the fuckin' game. But you almost don't need drugs in Vegas. A few days in the sensory over-stimulation and you'll be in an altered state anyhow. More on that later.

We wandered up and down Fremont. Some random place near the Main Street end was advertising a free topless show. I asked the girls out front what the catch was. "Well, there's a two drink minimum."
"And how much are these drinks?"
There was an awkward pause, "Uh... you'd have to ask... inside..."
I gave my crew the details and we voted against it.

We decided to head down to the strip instead. We had picked The Sahara because it's on the new monorail line, a convenient way to get up and down the strip and cheaper than a cab. But the monorail was busted, and had been down pretty much since it was completed according to several we talked to. We wondered if the cabbies were sabotaging it, but the cabbies only giggled at the accusation. Hmm...

We cabbed it down to New York New York, but their tables were all $10 and up late in the evening. We got a drink at one of the many bars then noticed they had a Coyote Ugly upstairs. We found our way up there out of curiosity only to find a $15 cover. Through the open door we caught a glimpse of cute girls dancing on the bar singing Journey or Def Leppard something equally horrific (I can't recall) so we wandered on. In Atlanta I can see real strippers fully naked for 1/3 that price and I don't have to deal with wall to wall drunken frat boys singing along to every song.

The crowd on the strip, particularly at night, is different than the one downtown. Downtown there are a lot more families with strollers and older folks looking for a quiet place to blow their retirement on nickel slots. Out on the strip it's a younger crowd looking for fun, drinking and flirting. We walked up and down the street for a while before calling it a night.

Phoenix 1 Phoenix 2 Tucson Grand Canyon Hoover Dam
Las Vegas 1 Las Vegas 2 Las Vegas 3 Las Vegas 4

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