Tuesday, July 19-Wednesday, July 20
If we received warnings and cries of disbelief about putting Death Valley on our itinerary, we received even more about Las Vegas. “You, Las Vegas? You have got to be kidding! Why would you put the country’s most garish, over-the-top, and obscene city on your trip?”
For that very reason. Plus what really puzzled us on our trip around-the-world last year when we chatted with scores of European and Asian travelers, every one of them who had visited the U.S. had been to Las Vegas. And they loved it! What is it about this city in America that is appealing to foreign visitors? What will this tell us about the Real America?
After our high stress drive across the desert due to the gasoline issue, we find ourselves on the outskirts of this sprawling desert city of two million. We are headed to Bellagio, an upscale casino resort, located on the Strip across the street from Caesars’s Place, and recommended by Dr. Killebrew, my friend and sailing companion, who is best known by his nickname—Killer, perhaps not the best nickname for an orthopedic surgeon but whatever. “Hey, he said, “If you are going to Vegas, you have to do it right, and Bellagio is doing it right.”
After a few missteps and false starts taking us through several seamy and rundown neighborhoods, we finally find ourselves in the bustling Strip. A replica of the Eiffel Tower rises in front of us, with the Arc de Triumph beside it, and we are surrounded by sky scrappers with names like Trump, Harrah, Flamingo, Caesar’s Palace and Bellagio. We drive up a ramp which runs alongside a large, elevated, man-made lake and then up to a 12- lane porte-cochere, where dozens of taxis, limousines, buses, and cars like Rolls Royces, Jaguars, and BMWs are lined up discharging passengers, and bell hops are scurrying about carting off luggage at a feverish pace. A half dozen cars are ahead of us in line; but within five minutes, we are greeted by a friendly bell hop, who welcomes us to Bellagio, takes our baggage and escorts us to the check-in area.
The minute you set foot inside the lobby of Bellagio, you know immediately that you are in another world. The lobby is huge with a gold ceiling and some sort of gold flower arrangement, a large fountain, a casino off to one side, and a large aquarium next to giant figures of fantasy creatures created with fresh flowers. Contrary to what I was expecting, I find the décor tasteful and attractive, even bordering on artistic.
The lobby is jam packed with people of all sizes, shapes , colors and languages breezing by, often laughing, mostly smiling, and naturally taking selfies. The line for check-in is set up like the line for screening people at airport security. I count over 100 people ahead of us, but with 37 clerks frantically working, the line moves fast and we are registered in about 20 minutes.
Think Disney World on Steroids for Adults.
To get to your room, you must first go through the casino area. I later find out that this is how all resort casinos in Las Vegas work. You can’t go anywhere—to your room, to a restaurant, to a café, to one of the upscale mall stores, to a bar, to the street, or to a restroom—without traversing the casino. As we make our way to the guest elevators, we pass hundreds of gambling options in full swing. The black jack tables, poker tables, roulette tables are all comfortably full as are the endless lines of slot machines. Many gamblers are smoking cigarettes and sipping drinks. And it is only five in the afternoon! We soon find out that the area of the casino we walk through to get to the guest elevators is only a fraction of what is available as one gambling room leads to another and then another, where all you can make out are ghost-like images of people standing around or sitting at tables or pulling levers on weird machines with blinking lights of all colors in what otherwise is a dark and mysterious space.
Meanwhile, cocktail waitresses in skimpy dresses are hurrying about with trays carrying drinks as wave after wave of people stroll past in search of the guest elevators.
For the record, Bellagio, is an average size casino hotel in Vegas with 4,000 rooms and over 115,000 square feet of gambling space. But that is only the beginning. There are at least a dozen upscale restaurants, probably at least as many bars and cafes, and there are auditoriums and theaters, scores of fancy shops selling expensive stuff, a huge fitness center and a court yard where you will find four giant swimming pools, more cafes and bars, and out in front, a man-made lake with a world famous fountain and water show. There is even an art museum. Once inside this giant, fantasy cocoon you never have to leave. I suppose that is the point. Probably most don’t.
Disney World on Steroids for Adults.
We make our way to our room, which is large, tastefully decorated, with a large, fancy bathroom with a separate shower and tub with marble floors, mini bar, giant flat screen TV, and buttons next to the king size bed that turn on and off everything including opening and shutting the drapes on the windows. The check-in lady asked if we would like to upgrade to a nicer room for only $50 (or $100 for one even better) per night, and when I accepted Embry looked at me aghast. I explained that I wasn’t going to stay in any hotel room wit no windows. Embry responded that I misunderstood what she was saying (She actually said $50 for a “better view”), so we stayed put. It was just fine.
Actually “just fine” is not quite the right word. This place is so far over the top that it defies description. I have got to hand it to the shrewd people who came up with the idea of creating a fantasy world in the middle of a desert. Only in America, as they say. There is, I suppose, no place on earth quite like Las Vegas, hence its appeal to a world-wide audience. “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” we are told; and from first observation, there appears to be a whole lot happening in Vegas.
There is something profound about all this, which tells us about human nature and about the Real America—perhaps even about the meaning of life itself.
But I have no idea what that is.
We soon learn that being in this fantasy cocoon has many dimensions. One is that since it is so difficult to find your way out of the hotel, what is available for consumption on site is really your only practical option. We pay the following: $28 for one pastry, two coffees and a small (not fresh) orange juice, $18 for a small (premade) ham and cheese sandwich and a small (not refillable) ice tea, and over $100 for the least expensive dinner we could find from room service—but that was for only one dinner, which we split. Drinks in the bar or minibar are $15, sushi is $12 per piece, and a la carte dinner entrees start in the $60 range in the nicer restaurants. Once you are inside, they have you. You might as well hand over the keys to your car or house. And I am not even talked about gambling (which we avoided).
So we find ourselves in a bit of a dilemma: how to eat without having to declare personal bankruptcy. And even more significant, how does a hard core Scots Irish Presbyterian like Embry stand this without drowning in a pool of guilt?
Easy. You don’t eat. That is, you do not eat the way you are supposed to. You take some short cuts like splitting a meal—there is way too much for one person anyway—and using leftovers for future meals. There was bread left from our room service meal so we saved that; and when Embry went down to buy the $6 cup of coffee for breakfast the next day, she returned with plenty of butter and additional rolls and pastry that were just sitting there on a cart in our hallway waiting to be picked up by room service. Is this an example of creative recycling or what? This little maneuver can be used for any meal, if you are careful, and can save you a lot of money. If you don’t get thrown out of the hotel.
We only spend two nights and one day in Vegas so it is an overstatement to say we understand the soul of this city. But the following story should provide some insight: I am in need of computer equipment so I use the internet to discover that there is anApple store literally across the street, in a mall that is part of Caesar’s Palace. Perfect. I tell Embry, who is lounging by the 75 meter swimming pool, that I am running a quick errand and will be back in a few minutes.
I walk through the Bellagio casino, eventually find the front desk (not a small accomplishment), and then walk down the ramp to the street. There are four intersections in front of Bellagio that should allow a pedestrian to walk across the street to Caesar’s Palace. But there is no crosswalk and do-not-walk signs are everywhere. In a couple of places there is not even a sidewalk, and I notice that practically no one is on the street, only bumper-to-bumper cars. I am witnessing an urban planner’s hell. Watching me stand there trying to figure out what to do, a young man taps me on the shoulder saying, “Don’t try it, buddy. You’ll be arrested or run over.” He explains that the only way you can cross the busy streets in the Strip is to use pedestrian bridges and pointed to two. The only way to access the bridge, however, is through your hotel.
Back to the hotel lobby. One of the bell hops gives me careful instructions, which involve going through at least three casino rooms, making several turns and then going down a mall, which opens onto the bridge. I make several failed efforts at this, ending up in dead-in hallways, trash rooms, and more endless rooms of slot machines and black jack tables. I try Google Maps, which is as useless as I am, and continue to ask for directions until finally I manage to stumble out of the building. I feel like I have just broken out of prison. There is only one problem: I am back on the street, more or less where I started. Someone comes up to me and warns me not to cross.
“Yeah, I know.”
This is now becoming a challenge: is it actually possible to go from Bellagio to Caesar’s Palace, separated by a distance of some 100 feet? It would probably even be a fun challenge if my knee wasn’t hurting. So I start over, ask more directions and finally, about an hour after setting off from the pool, walk triumphantly across the bridge going to Caesar’s Palace.
This should be the end of this nightmarish ordeal, but actually it is only the beginning. If Bellagio is Disney World on steroids, Caesar’s Palace is Bellagio on steroids, except a bit down-at-the-mouth, darker, and more crowded. It appears to me to outsize Bellagio by a factor of ten. Eventually, after going through one casino room after another and past hundreds of upscale stores selling lavender purses for $499.00 and purple shoes for $799.99 and gold jewelry for $999.99 and perfume for….I stumble on the Apple Store. During this ordeal, I am convinced that I am a character in a real time realty TV show called something like “Quest.” I have passed through at least a half dozen crowded, dark rotundas with giant statues of Greek gods, Roman heroes, emperors and replicas of Michelangelo’s David. Weird lights come on and then disappear and smoke comes out of bubbling fountains. This must be a dream, I keep telling myself. It can’t be happening. My aching knee reminds me that it is real.
Naturally Apple does not have what I want, try Best Buy.
No problem, I respond, just tell me how to get out of this building. The tone of my voice is desperate. I look at my watch. The Quest is now nearing its third hour.
Easy, he says, just take this corridor and then that one, turn and go trough the restroom area. You’ll find the street. It is a shortcut.
I follow his instructions exactly and within fifteen minutes find myself gasping for air, feeling the bright sun and 106 degree heat. I am in the middle of a narrow, deserted alley. I follow it to another empty street, look at my Google Maps, which obviously has no idea where I am, and then hail down an employee, who is leaving Caesar’s Palace, heading for his car. When I ask how to get back to Bellagio (keep in mind that I am talking about a building across the street), he replies that I can’t. It is not possible from this location. I have got to go back through the casino. When he senses that I am about to lose it, he motions for me to follow him. He will show me the way. He is like a forest ranger finding a lost child in the woods and returning the child to her parents. He gently leads me through more underground corridors, a parking garage and finally to a place where I can see the elusive bridge. This act of kindness reminds me of how decent and caring we as humans can be.
In another ten minutes I am back in the Bellagio lobby. I refrain from spreading my arms in a victory gesture and glance at my watch. It has been over two and one half hours. I swear I am never leaving the hotel again.
Welcome to Vegas!
But as it turns out we do leave the hotel that evening to go to a show. When in Vegas you have to go to a show, and we select Brooks, Dunn and Reba, three country music icons performing at Caesar’s Palace. Now that I know sort of what I am doing, we walk there in only fifteen minutes. The sold-out show is fabulous. The music is the best country has to offer, and the rapport the performers have with their adorning audience is extraordinary. What is perhaps most impressive is the staging with the most startling use of lights that I have ever seen.
We skip the steaks and the sushi and buy two small salmon salads, which will suffice for a late dinner and breakfast and save us $250.
Tomorrow we are off for the Grand Canyon. Have we found the Real America here in Vegas? In some ways I think we have—at least a small part of it: our continuing optimism, innovation, excess, self-indulgence, diversity, kindness, and hope. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. People are having fun. They are loving the experience even if it is fleeting, even if it is a fantasy. For a few brief days, you are a part of this nether world where anything goes and where you have a chance to be rich beyond your wildest dreams. This is hope and it is part of being human. That when you leave you are actually much poorer than when you came is ok. You have had your shot. You were in the game. Next time maybe you will be lucky.