Dry cold or not, you’d think after nearly a quarter century of Yellowknife winters I should have a pretty good idea of what to expect; that I’ve accepted, if not embraced, that the tiniest wind at -30 will feel like a machete ripping apart my forehead, or that darkness – with its daytime ally greyness – will lord its shadows over my psyche like a low, persistent growl for two months. But no. When the dog days of winter sunk their teeth into me this January, I had nothing in my tank to bite back. Barely able to roll myself off the couch, I knew I had to get the heck outta here.
Operation Find Sunlight proved harder than I anticipated. I had my trusted travel partner Criss (technically my aunt, but with just three years separating us, we grew up like sisters) onboard, and we decided to seek the red rock mesas of the American southwest, where ancient, mystique voices had been calling us since before the dawn of Trip Adviser. We would road trip with no plan, no reservations; ergo no commitments. We like the freedom that flying by the seat of our pants affords, and since we both make our living in the arts, affording is omni-present in our low-budget, non-plans. But then we did something unusual. We invited my brother Brian along to mark a milestone birthday, and that’s when the trip took an unexpected turn – to Vegas.
For all my lifelong wanderlust, Vegas has never even remotely piqued my interest. It’s not just that it’s the antithesis of the natural spaces I so crave – Vegas holds no pretense, in fact brazenly snubs, any notion it has a caretaker role in the Mohave Desert – or that I love my hard-earned money too much to gamble, or that Celine Dion’s husband lives there (on second thought, maybe those are the main reasons). I’m also not a fan of crowds, theme parks, public drunkenness or organized crime, although supposedly the Mafia’s influence greatly diminished when Wall Street junk bonds began funding mega-resorts along the Strip in the ‘90s.
“It’ll be fun,” my brother, a Vegas veteran and program manager for an oil company, insisted. True, it was the cheapest port of entry on a Saturday for all of us. We could stay one night then blast out in our rental for Arizona. O.K., Criss and I conceded. Then Brian, also a consummate athlete and TV sports aficionado, realized the next day would be Super Bowl Sunday. “SUPER BOWL SUNDAY,” he pleaded, “IN VEGAS!” Neither Criss nor I knew who was playing. We did not see any special significance between Vegas and Super Bowl Sunday until the male colleagues at our respective work places sided wholly with my brother, explaining that next to having tickets to the game, Vegas was THE best place to soak up America’s iconic football event. Yawn. The women’s resolve was unshaken – until our co-workers pointed out it was Brian’s birthday, and really, weren’t we being, um, to put it politely, selfish prigs.
Cue the accordion player…
The Venetian Resort Hotel Casino on Las Vegas Blvd. – where the Sands Hotel used to be before it was imploded to make way for one of the world’s largest resorts – was my brother’s choice for our two-night stay along the Strip in Paradise, Nevada. Like most things on the Strip, the hotel ignores its desert surroundings and tries to transport its guests somewhere else, in this case, Venice. Gilded gold as far as the eye can see greets you in the lobby, where a costumed, middle-aged accordion player waltzes around a giant, burbling fountain, smiling as new guests rush to his side for a photo, genuinely seeming to love his job (there can’t be much demand for his lot, and I’m sure he counts himself lucky). I was disappointed there was no monkey.
Later, I rubbed my eyes in disbelief (and a little pain and discomfort, since Vegas casinos are one of the last vestiges in the Western world where smoking is still allowed inside) when I discovered a gondolier poling tourists around a canal inside the resort. Above us a high ceiling painted with clouds and blue sky reminded me that, apart from a few minutes waiting for the shuttle to the rent-a-car terminal, I had not yet felt actual sunlight. The Strip’s casino-oriented maze of walkways discourages fresh air. I bit my tongue and dabbed a drop of Vitamin D onto it.
It was exciting to watch Criss and Brian engage in a little roulette, with a modicum of success even, but I was saddened by the relentless stream of scantily clad female servers (never any men) and the peddling of sex on every street corner. Most depressing was the casino with young girls pole dancing on raised pedestals. And yet, these girls represent the historic genesis of the world’s largest adult playground.
Migrant, mostly unattached male workers who flocked to build the nearby Hoover Dam in 1931 needed entertainment, hence the Las Vegas businessmen, Mafia, and Mormon financiers stepped in to resurrect casinos and showgirl acts. When the Hoover Dam started generating electricity, Freemont Street in the original town of Las Vegas proudly lit up with bright lights, a glitter it’s tried to maintain ever since.
Big stars, and big shows (everything in Vegas is super-sized) are a part of that glitzy tradition. We headed to The Mirage to find a place to eat before catching Cirque de Soleil’s Beatles Love show. I’ll give this to Vegas, we had no problem finding good tickets to the show of our choice a few hours beforehand on one of the busiest weekends of the year. The music, the exuberance of the acrobats, left me breathless. I texted my athletic and flamboyant son, a graduate of Sir John’s drama program, with orders to quit university and join the circus.
Dinner had been equally enchanting; a Japanese restaurant with a red-headed, Milwaukeean-transplant waiter who doled out real estate advice and delicious seaweed salads. Vegas’ near-unparalleled growth across a parched desert had reached an environmental tipping point, he told us, affirming one of the reasons I find the city’s excesses, well, excessive. “If they announce they can’t extend water services to any new properties, then land prices are going to just skyrocket,” he said. “They will continue to build up, but not out.”
Our room at the Venetian was, quite frankly, amazing, with a marbled bathroom the size of my living room and fluffy beds that seemed to cannibalize you in comfort. My brother’s extensive corporate travel had accustomed him to such luxury, and he subsidized our room rate so Criss and I could see if this lifestyle was something in which we too, could become accustomed.
Had it ended there, my Vegas experience would have rated a respectable 6/10. But Super Bowl Sunday was stressful. First, despite hundreds of TVs everywhere, there was a charge now to sit in a chair during the game and have people blow smoke at you. While Brian lined up to place our bets on everything from the coin toss to the length of the anthem, I hunted down venues. I was waiting outside Signor Frog’s for a chance at a $175 per person, all-you-can-eat-and-drink spot inside, when the young Californian beside me decided to search for something cheaper, and I followed. We scouted a free table at a seafood restaurant, which I held onto while he gathered his ageless mom and girlfriend.
My brother was a Broncos fan and put most of our money on Denver (not to sound too monkey obsessed, but I secretly wanted Seattle after watching a television clip of an orangutan in a Utah zoo, famous for choosing the past six Super Bowl winners, give the nod to the Seahawks). The game was a bust, but at least we won the coin toss.
We ended the night watching precious water dip and swirl at Bellagio’s famous dancing fountain as we enjoyed another tremendous meal at an outdoor French restaurant.
I know a lot of Yellowknifers love Vegas, and I get that. It is a decadent, entertaining escape; a free pass to indulgence. My trip picked up when we left to hike the red rock energy vortexes of Sedona (cue angels singing on high wearing Navajo blankets and worshipping the sun), where grey water was reclaimed and reused, and not a single plastic-cupped margarita could be found littering the streets.
On our way back my brother and I had a few hours to kill in Vegas after we dropped Criss off at the airport. We chose to visit old Vegas, Freemont Street. The street was packed with cheering, swaying Zumba followers crowding around an outdoor stage, trying to break the world record for most dancers. The side streets were bustling with vendors selling Asian street meats in celebration of Chinese New Year. It was a beautiful blend of many cultures; smiling men, women and children enjoying fresh air and exercise, while just steps away inside the aging casinos, zombie-like patrons walked the frayed and smoke-drenched carpets in search of their next money repository. To each his own.
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